Chicago Theatre Review
Living Life to the Fullest
Gilda Radner—A Sort of Love Story – Mercury Theatre
Once upon a time there was a very funny woman who met and fell for a very funny man. Strangely, at the time, the man, Alan, was hiding behind a potted plant and the woman, Gilda, was working on her impersonation of Julie Andrews’ parakeet. They immediately connected and formed a lifelong, creative bond that took Alan and Gilda into realms of comedy, tragedy and love. This warm and wonderful comedy/drama, based upon Alan Zweibel’s biography of comedian Gilda Radner, will deeply move every theatergoer.
Gilda Radner is familiar to devoted fans of “Saturday Night Live.” As one of the TV show’s seven original cast members, Gilda Radner eventually became a household name. She both co-wrote and performed much of her own material. But it was at the audition for the Not For Prime Time Players, where Gilda met the show’s new sketch comedy writer, Alan Zweibel. They immediately clicked and began collaborating, creating a variety of memorable and beloved characters, such as news anchorwoman Roseanne Roseannadanna, whose catchphrase was “It’s always something.” That tagline became the title of Gilda’s autobiography.
In addition, Ms. Radner played an hilarious parody of Barbara Walters, called Baba Wawa; she also portrayed the angry, elderly and hearing-impaired Emily Litella, who always gave misinformed editorials. Gilda parodied many of the female celebrities of her day, while also creating many other memorable original characters. Eventually, the comedian recreated some of her most beloved characters in a highly successful one-woman show on Broadway.
Although Gilda Radner achieved monumental success in her career, her personal life was rocky. The comedian shared everything with Alan Zweibel, her best friend and writing partner. Gilda confessed that she was tired of hearing her name called out by strangers and being pursued by fans. She asked him to, instead, call her “Gilbert.” Alan also then learned that Gilda, often criticized about her weight, was bulimic. After several unsuccessful love affairs and marriages, Gilda eventually married her film co-star, Gene Wilder. She then learned that she’d contracted ovarian cancer. While Alan had always been attracted to Gilda, she preferred to take their relationship so carefully and slowly that Zweibel became frustrated. He eventually married Robin Blankman, whom he met while on the writing staff of SNL. But, toward the end of her life, when Gilda asked Alan why they never got married, he responded, “I guess we just forgot.”
In Warner Crocker’s brilliantly conceived and directed production, audiences will find warmth, love, lots of laughs and a sincere message that will hit home. Gilda always knew, especially in her final days, that life is meant to be lived to the fullest. It’s this idea that permeates the play, based upon Alan Zweibel’s biography. Gilda said, “Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” Crocker has brought this theme to life through Zweibel’s own words.
The cast for this show couldn’t be better. Warner Crocker has inspired and guided three of Chicago’s best-loved, most gifted actors to tell this love story. Dana Tretta, recently seen in TimeLine Theatre’s “In the Next Room,” is stunningly beautiful in this role. The actress has appeared in so many plays and musicals. She’s portrayed such diverse characters as Sally Bowles, in “Cabaret,” to her Jeff-Awarded Catherine, in “Pippin.” This, however, may be the role that earns this multi-talented actress her first Equity honor. While never trying to impersonate Gilda Radner, Ms. Tretta even sounds and looks like the comedian, thanks in part to wig and hair designer Kevin Barthel and costumer Robert Kuhn. Dana Tretter will make your sides ache with laughter and then, just as suddenly, bring a lump to your throat. Fans of Gilda Radner will recognize, through Dana’s performance, her signature gestures and comic style, recalling the late actress’ finest moments on stage and screen.
Jackson Evans plays Alan Zweibel as if wearing a second skin. This brilliant comic actor, whose many theatrical credits include Princeton, in “Avenue Q” and Ricky Potts in “Ride the Cyclone,” is one of Chicago’s best-loved comic actors. But, as we see in Evans’ consummate portrayal of Zweibel, he’s also a master at serious drama, as well. Through Mr. Evans’ creation, we feel his love for Gilda, along with his frustration and pain for Zweible’s dearest friend. Together, Ms. Tretta and Mr. Evans turn in honest, heartfelt, star-making performances, that are bound to be remembered for years to come. They become as one, a pair who can never be separated and the real definition of lifelong friends.
Playing everyone else in the show, Jason Grimm, previously enjoyed at the Mercury Theater in “The Addams Family” and “The Man Who Murdered Sherlock Holmes,” Mr. Grimm is jaw-dropping wonderful. His resume includes performances at many of Chicago’s finest theatres. Here Mr. Grimm demonstrates is unbelievable versatility, portraying an obnoxious waiter, Andy Warhol, an arrogant butler, Gilda’s half-naked date, a fishmonger, a FedEx man and many, many other characters. It becomes fun to wait for and watch what new characterization Jason will bring to the stage.
Kudos also go to Anna Segatti and Jake Bradley, who understudy the two leading roles, but are also frequently featured in every performance. Together they perform in some entertaining, tightly choreographed scenic changes. The pair get to strut their stuff during their brief appearances on stage, particularly at the disco, and as adoring, screaming Gilda Radner fans. Altogether, these two actors add much to this production, thanks to Warner Crocker’s expert direction. Special mention must also be made of the exquisite, versatile scenic design by Jacqueline and Richard Penrod. Never making any attempt at realism, the set is tattooed with pages from the script and sports moving parts and pieces that change the look of the scene in a second. It’s a workable work of artistic creativity that’s also practical and economical.
The fourteen-year friendship between Gilda Radner and her mentor, Alan Zweibel is as touching as it is hilarious. Incidents from both their lives include auditions, performances, dealing with fame, bad romantic choices, mourning over the death of a favorite pop star and, finally, coming to terms with illness. Through banter and quarrels, these two bosom buddies show what it means to be real friends. And in our current era of bitterness and betrayal, it’s refreshing to know that such true, reliable relationships still exist in this world. Friendships, such as this, are a big part of living life to its fullest.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 9-April 1 by Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the theater box office, by calling 773-325-1700 or by going to www.MercuryTheaterChicago.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.