The only thing missing from “Debbie Reynolds: An Evening of Music and Comedy,” the star’s engaging “little visit with friends” at the El Portal, is any hint of the emotional toll of her well-documented personal and professional disappointments. In this 90 minutes of music, comedy and reminiscence, Debbie has no interest in wallowing in her woes, and she’s betting the audience doesn’t either.
Given her famously bad marriages, her Oscar loss, the circumstances forcing her memorabilia museum to move to Dolly Parton’s Pigeon Forge, Tenn., home: surely she’s seething somewhere ?
Maybe when she’s alone. But onstage, she’s no Elaine Stritch at liberty or ease to reveal her pain. All negativity is verboten, starting with a challenge to her thin upper register in a sunshiny medley from “Gee, But It’s Good to Be Here” (from the tuner “Happy Hunting”) to the proudly philosophical “That’s Life.” Who more than Debbie Reynolds has picked herself up and gotten back in the race, again and again?
In Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On,” “You and I, babe,/We’ll be flying high, babe” becomes a compact not between lovers, but between a star and her adoring public, a compact hinging on shared memories of Hollywood and the El Portal itself (to which a young Mary Frances Reynolds used to bike from Burbank to see 10-cent movies).
Good or otherwise, the old days receive a review from Reynolds in a wide-eyed stammer that perhaps helps her get through the rough patches. (Her delivery turns relaxed and natural when narrating home movies of her beloved kids, or annotating film clips with anecdotes about Gene Kelly.)
As for ego and anger, she takes all blame for the lousy husbands, seems proud of her museum’s proximity to Dollywood’s millions of tourists, and brags to the uninitiated: “I’m Princess Leia’s mother.”
All deprecation is self-directed, by a lady comfortably introducing herself as the wrong ex-wife: “Hi, I’m Connie Stevens.”
And if you’re churlish enough to seek cracks in the facade, forget it: This salty dame beats you to it. Just as you’re thinking her green lame gown is slit up so high, her at-home bathrobe must reveal less skin, she’s bragging about her exposed left leg “’cause everything else is shot.”
The moment you realize her Streisand impression smacks of Jackie Mason, she’s there admitting it. (The Streisand patter, that is. Her musical parody of Barbra’s phrasing habits and narcissism is uncannily spot-on.)
An 11th-hour Garland tribute doesn’t quite work: Most of the songs lie outside Reynolds’ comfort zone, and this is not an evening for tapping into a heart of darkness. She’s on firmer ground with her encore of “my one little hit,” “Tammy,” as charming as ever.