The name Martin Short prompts a twinge of delight, then disappointment — the latter because no medium has suited his talents since the ensemble skit-comedy format of “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live” more than a quarter-century ago. What’s an “all-around entertainer” to do in an era when that job description is no longer current or desirable? “Fame Becomes Me” provides a pretty good answer. This hybrid evening — with elements of musical, revue, autobiography, improv, genre parody and meta-theater surrealism — is at present 75% Broadway-ready in its San Francisco tryout.
That’s close enough to raise confidence, though there’s a wildcard element to “Fame” that renders safe prediction impossible. This frequently hilarious, imaginative package sometimes seems discomfitingly like the things it’s satirizing.
Conceived by Short with “Hairspray” co-creators Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the show is best when it takes absurdist flight as a mash-up of “Hellzapoppin’,” retro TV variety hour and riff on celebrity-culture confessionalism a la “Oprah.”
It’s weakest when the ka-boom-cha! of creaky “Broadway blue” humor reveals Short as less hip than his irony-drenched vehicle wants us to think. Those moments are relatively few, however.
For the most part, “Fame” functions as a work of profound insincerity. It starts with “The Comedy All-Stars” (including stage and TV familiars Shaiman, Brooks Ashmanskas, Mary Birdsong and Nicole Parker) singing “A Party With Marty,” a horror until one realizes it’s meant to ape every perky “Hello, I’m the show-opening song!” tune in bad-revue history.
The conceit is that a “desperate for attention” Short is back on Broadway because his wife of 25-plus years told (or rather sang to) him, “If you need a nightly stroking/Do a one-man show.” Short presents himself as a rich yet needy, fatuously self-absorbed (“I mean, I read about the world … I just don’t quite relate to it”) objet de moi.
He worries that giving us only “the sunny sparkle Martin” won’t be enough — he needs to give us “my life’s journey … if there’s not enough pain, I’ll just make it up.” Thus we get a musical memoir that starts with “1950, I am born!” and proceeds through a duly infantile “Babies” number and faux-dysfunctional family flashbacks (“Don’t Wanna Be Me”) to a series of auditions that amusingly send up Tommy Tune (Ashmanskas on stilts), Bob Fosse and tribal-love-rock musicals.
Short creates his own ’70s meltdown of 12-step-necessitating excess: “My rock bottom is still your wildest dreams,” he sneers. But this telepic melodrama is interrupted by a deus ex machina that ends act one with star’s purported onstage death.
After intermission, he’s revealed to be “just” in a coma — but his panicked cast members, fearful of losing paychecks, have already started to ask sundry passers-by “Would Ya Like to Star in Our Show?” Their ranks include Joan Rivers (a hysterical Birdsong), as well as Ellen DeGeneres, Celine Dion and Britney Spears (all Parker). That procession briefly reduces “Fame” to the kind of dumb pop-culture referencing familiar from Fox Network’s “MadTV.”Professional mourner Jiminy Glick — a latex-laden Short — takes over a hospital sequence whose improvisational “interview” nature was graced on opening night by the enlistment of Dennis Miller from the aud. Whether Short will make do with ordinary mortals in subsequent shows is unknown.
Second act too often treads water in the shallow end of the pool, sacrificing conceptual smarts to trite spins on obvious current targets (like “American Idol”). Yet another deus ex machina moment allows “God of Show Business” Irving Cohen, another favorite Short character, to wrest control of whatever narrative is left. It’s wrested again by Capathia Jenkins (“Caroline, or Change”), who says it’s 10:30 p.m. and thus time for “a big black lady” to “Stop the Show” — a wailing R&B vocal that aptly parodies a particularly insipid musical convention of our era.
Yet this sequence’s fake emotion-pumping is used in earnest to signal a turn homeward in the show’s “journey.” Suddenly we’re back with “Marty,” who does a Carol Burnett-style closer with the bittersweet, simply piano-accompanied “Glass Half Full.” Thankfully, a stinger punchline undermines any sappiness.
Short is an undoubted treasure, his co-stars quite wonderful comedically and vocally (especially Birdsong, with her cleverly deployed Garland impersonation). The songs, being mostly wiseass parodies of Broadway formulas (the “Wicked” one especially so), are largely brief and sharp rather than immediately memorable. The design contributions are smartly faux and hilarious. (There’s even room for “Peter Pan”-style “flying.”)
All “Fame” needs to do between here and Broadway (where it opens Aug. 10 at the Jacobs) is sharpen its “SCTV”-style wit, stifle dim scatological yuks and revamp act two. Myriad tryouts have overcome less.