While the Lyceum Theater stage might be the same one on which Whoopi Goldberg launched her career 20 years ago, and three of the five character studies in her solo show might be familiar from the first time around, the star herself is an entirely different animal. The comic brilliance is intact, but two decades of celebrity from film and television roles, a talkshow and a sitcom have taken their toll on Goldberg’s humility, making her a far less giving performer, less willing to shed her own persona and slip seamlessly inside another character.
And while original presenter and production supervisor Mike Nichols is again on board, the absence from the credits of a director is evi-dent throughout this unfocused return to Goldberg’s roots. Like an unknotted, over-inflated balloon, “Whoopi” is loudly, buoyantly airborne for an initially exuberant spin, before sputtering with gradually decreasing energy and landing with a splat on the ground.
That’s not to say the show is unfunny. Standing on a bare stage with only minimal variations in costume and subtle changes in lighting, Goldberg delivers plenty of salty hilarity, especially via the first two characters on the bill. Much as both could benefit from a script editor, they represent the show’s high points.
Goldberg starts on a familiar note with Fontaine. As in the original show, the crudely articulate, crotch-grabbing male dope fiend and thief enters the stage singing “Around the World in 80 Motherfuckin’ Days,” proceeding to recount a sobering awakening in Amsterdam’s Anne Frank House.
Not surprisingly, for a performer whose irreverent attacks on the Republican elite were deemed too strong even for Democrats at a Kerry fundraiser over the summer, Fontaine has become primarily a vehicle for Goldberg to vent against the Bush administration. The president’s re-election provides new reasons for the character to alter his reality: “We had a president who lied about getting some and we impeached him. Then we had a president who lied about all kinds of shit. And people are dying. And we put him back. And I thought, ‘I need more drugs.’ ”
Fontaine’s perplexity over the war in Iraq, the hunt for Osama, Middle America’s terror of gay marriage and the job of Condoleezza Rice (this before news emerged of her bump-up to secretary of state) yield steady laughs. But while the amiable junkie was a fully inhabited char-acter 20 years ago, it’s now impossible to separate Goldberg from Fontaine, making much of the rant seem like politically driven material heard on standup stages everywhere.
Second in the lineup is Lurlene, an earthy, menopausal Southern woman unamused by the onset of hot flashes, cold flashes, weight gain, unwanted hair growth, memory loss and a dysfunctional bladder. A worthy new addition to the show, the character hilariously traces the evolution of sanitary protection in her lifetime, obsesses about men’s bathroom habits vs. women’s and uses “Sex and the City” as her guide to hook into young culture, resulting in a funny, agonizing account of a waxing appointment.
The piece is over-extended and gets off-track with Lurlene’s computer phobia, but is tidily pulled together with a message about embracing rather than fearing change.
The remainder of the show includes two lazily recycled characters from the original and a one-joke new entry that makes for a disastrously feeble closer.
When Goldberg first played Broadway, she was one of very few women to follow in the footsteps of dirty-mouthed, take-no-prisoners solo comedy performers like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. And when she first gave voice to her pregnant Catholic Valley Girl surfer, there was something wickedly liberating about a black woman with a head of unruly dreadlocks playing a white California airhead. But clueless Vals have since become a staple of, like, a gazillion teen movies and women like Margaret Cho and Wanda Sykes have followed with far more barbed, cutting-edge white-girl riffs.
What ages the reprise even more is that Goldberg skims through the piece, sacrificing the buildup that initially gave the character’s grim revelation its impact.
The physically disabled, speech-impaired woman who unexpectedly finds love was always a weak, sentimental link in the show and re-mains so. It perhaps would have made more sense to revive the original show’s 6-year-old black girl starved for TV images of herself and dreaming of being white, or the Jamaican souvenir vendor who married a wealthy American “old raisin,” either of which might have more resiliently withstood the test of time.
Final character represents a complete fizzle — a “Law & Order” fan, or “Ordery,” as reverentially obsessed with the show as Trekkies are with “Star Trek.”
Goldberg’s rather perfunctory bows at the close of the show would seem to indicate she might be conscious of how flat the final section is, though perhaps not so aware as the premium orchestra ticket buyers who paid $151.25 per seat.