Whatever happened to Leslie Nielsen on the opening night of his “Darrow” revival in Toronto is the stuff of an actor’s worst nightmare: He stumbled over words, mangled punch lines and had to stop and compose himself more than once. By mid-show his voice became husky and a dry throat clearly began to irritate him.
We may never know what went wrong, but can only suspect a bad case of nerves. Perhaps it was coming home to Canada to perform on the venerable old Royal Alexandra stage (many showbiz personalities, including Canadian director Des McAnuff, have pointed to the Alex as a marker of “making it” back home). Or perhaps it was just one of those things.
Whatever, the long-awaited performance of the actor best known as “Naked Gun’s” Frank Drebin fizzled and died. Yet the show did not, which only goes to prove once more that a compelling, well-crafted text can keep a performance afloat.
David W. Rintels’ paean to Clarence Darrow may be dusted with rose petals, leaving out some facts that make his hero somewhat less than heroic, but it nonetheless remains a fascinating look at one of America’s greatest litigators and freedom fighters. Listening to the material now, it is chilling to realize how much of what Darrow was fighting for and against in the early 1900s has come around again.
And blow it though Nielsen did, there were also glimpses of what he might yet do on another night in his cross-Canada tour (or perhaps achieved 20 years ago when he first took over the part from Henry Fonda). He declaims with great resonance and he is charming when sharing Darrow’s personal anecdotes. Sheer magnetism allowed him to dominate the large Alex stage, though an awkward set (not credited in the program) forced him too far upstage for the more fiery courtroom scenes.
And though Nielsen is talented, he might have done better to bring in another experienced director. There were many moments when placement and emphasis (both physical and vocal) could have been more precise and powerful. What makes this outing so poignant is that Nielsen has been saying in interviews that part of his reason for buying the script and remounting it was wanting to be remembered as a great dramatic, rather than comic, actor. He may be selling his own talents short.