LIGHT UP A CIGAR WITH GEORGE
BONNIE GOLDBERG – Middletown Press

Comedian George Burns wanted to live to be age 100 and planned to perform in Las Vegas to mark the grand occasion.  Unfortunately a fall in the shower earlier on jinxed his goal, but he did live to be a century old, plus 49 days, 11 hours before going to the great beyond.

Rupert Holmes has crafted a delightful and poignant tribute to Burns and his wife and acting partner Gracie Allen in “Say Goodnight, Gracie” being offered for your enjoyment at the Ivoryton Playhouse until Sunday, November 16.

R. Bruce Connelly is wonderfully personable and charming as Burns, complete with thick rimmed glasses and trademark cigar, as he reveals and reviews his life. Born one of twelve siblings, the son of immigrants, living in a tenement in the Lower East Side of New York, he started out as Nathan Birnbaum.

The sudden death of his father, a Torah scholar, when he was only seven, set him off as the family breadwinner, selling newspapers, shining shoes and hauling ice.  It wasn’t long before the call of show business placed him on a permanent road, with “temporary” teamings with acts dancing, singing and even tending seals, as he tried to find the magic key to success.

That key finally came when a petite Irish beauty signed on to be his new partner, Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen.  Their collaboration led to marriage, a family and popularity in vaudeville, radio, film, television and books.  George and Gracie became household names for decades, until Gracie’s health forced her retirement.  No longer would he ask, “So, Gracie, how’s your brother?”

This gentle waltz of a play reveals many happy moments, with film clips, and a liberal stuffing of comical stories from the past.  Jack Benny pops in for his share of the humor as this love story is so sweetly told.  Michael McDermott directs this nostalgic visit with one of America’s most beloved stars of comedy.

For tickets ($42, seniors $37, students $20 children $15), call the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton at 860-767-7318 or online at www.ivoryton.com.  Performances are Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.

Come meet the actor who played none other than God, not once, not twice, but three times and gave the world a host of heavenly performances, with his own personal angel, Gracie, on a cloud nearby.

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CONNECTICUT
Regional Reviews by Zander Opper

Say Goodnight, Gracie
Ivoryton Playhouse

Say Goodnight, Gracie, the blissful and touching one-man show written by Rupert Holmes, is currently enjoying a lovely revival at the Ivoryton Playhouse. The play chronicles the life of George Burns and, in particular, his relationship, both onstage and off, with his wife Gracie Allen. One of the reasons this production is so successful is the commanding and genial performance by R. Bruce Connelly as George Burns. I saw this actor do especially fine work earlier this season Ivoryton in All Shook Up and he is even stronger here, effortlessly carrying the evening and managing to evoke the singular talent that was George Burns.

Originally produced on Broadway in 2002 and starring Frank Gorshin, Say Goodnight, Gracie holds the title of being the third longest running solo show in Broadway history. It is easy to see why it carries this distinction. The initial conceit of the show is that, at the start, George Burns has been summoned before God and he has to recount his life before moving on to heaven. While this setup may sound a bit hokey, it works beautifully. Through the performance of R. Bruce Connelly, and aided by the use of old film clips of the real George Burns and Gracie Allen, the play flows smoothly, as it recounts the life of George Burns from his earliest days to the very end. It manages to maintain a poignant balance between humor and heartache.

While not exactly doing an impersonation of George Burns in his later years, Connelly still conjures up the actor through the use of speech inflections, horn-rimmed glasses, and, of course, the requisite cigar that the star always smoked. But his performance is much more than just superficial features: this actor summons up the spirit and personality of George Burns to the point that one almost forgets that it’s not the real star that we are seeing onstage. It also helps that Rupert Holmes has written a terrific play, and the work of director Michael McDermott and his marvelous scenic and costume designers (Daniel Nischan and Kari Crowther, respectively) is equally stellar.

During the course of Say Goodnight, Gracie we learn quite a lot about the lives of George Burns and Gracie Allen, and the play can both move one to tears without ever feeling mawkish, and also provide humor that is often laugh-out-loud funny without ever tarnishing the memory of these singular talents.

Speaking as someone who missed out on growing up with George and Gracie, on the radio or on television, the show works beautifully and proves to be a real delight, and I can highly a performance at the Ivoryton Playhouse, where you’ll fall under the spell of George Burns, as enacted by the brilliant R. Bruce Connelly.

Say Goodnight, Gracie continues performances at Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, Connecticut through November 16th, 2014. For tickets, please visit www.ivorytonplayhouse.org or call (860) 767-7318

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One of Connecticut’s Best Portraying One of Hollywood’s Best
By Lauren Yarger

CONNECTICUT ARTS CONNECTION — An award-winning site for news and reviews of Connecticut’s professional theater and arts.

The actor I like to call a gem of Connecticut Theater takes on an entertainment icon when he plays George Burns in Say Goodnight, Gracie.

The one-man show, written by Rupert Holmes, and directed here by Michael McDermott, is a trip down memory lane with Burns, who finds himself “auditioning” for a place in heaven when he lands in a sort of purgatory where his life ( of 100 years) is a command performance for the Almighty.

Moving around on a stage set with a chair, a table and a movie screen where projections bring some of the past images to life, Burns recounts his life, beginning as a young Jewish boy in a New York tenement, delivering papers and singing songs to bring in a few pennies to help support his mother and 11 other siblings after his beloved father dies.

He lands many jobs in show business, but hits it big after teaming up with the love of his life, Gracie Allen. The script combines Burns’ recollections, intimate memories and radio and TV show clips to bring Gracie to life (Marcus Abbott is the lighting designer). Originally, Burns had scripted their routines with Gracie as the “straight man,” but quickly realized that the talented actress, with her trademark voice and dizzy delivery, was the one who would get all the laughs.

We also hear about Burns long-time friendship with Jack Benny and for his ability to make the comedian laugh. It is a nice blend of humor, nostalgia and fine stage craft.

Connelly channels Burns without trying to do an imitation (though he kind of looks like him, thanks to costuming by Kari Crowther). It’s a pleasure to sit back and watch a master at his craft.

Connelly has been a fixture on Connecticut stages for years, and in fact, played Burns in Say Goodnight, Gracie last year at Seven Angels Theatre in Waterbury. At Ivoryton, he recently appeared as Jim in the summer production All Shook Up, Barney Cashman in Last Of The Red Hot Lovers, Max Bialystock in The Producers, Felix Unger in The Odd Couple, Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Finian in Finian’s Rainbow.

If you don’t know him from Connecticut stage, you might have caught Connelly as Barkley, Jim Henson’s Muppet dog on “Sesame Street” for which he has been honored 15 times by the National Academy of Television and Radio at the Daytime Emmy Awards, according to a press release.

This Ivoryton production is a delightful wrap-up of the 2013-2014 season. The performance I attended was sold out, so get you tickets quick (and check out next season, which hasn’t been announced officially, but which will include the US premiere of Calendar Girls and the Tony-Award-winner Memphis, according to Artistic Director Jacqueline Hubbard’s curtain speech.)

Say Goodnight, Gracie runs through Nov. 16 at Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton. Performances are Wednesday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm. Tickets $42 for adults, $37 for seniors, $20 for students and $15 for children 860-767-7318; www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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By Geary Danihy
For CT Theater News and Reviews and Connecticut Critics Circle

As you sit watching “Say Goodnight, Gracie,” which recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse, a question slowly arises: must you be of a certain age to truly enjoy this one-character, one-act play? The answer is yes…and no, for “Gracie” is as much a love story as it is a trip down Memory Lane. It is also a quintessential American story that embodies the spirit of the Horatio Alger novels: a young lad of low beginnings, through luck and pluck, makes his way in the world and becomes a success.

Who is Gracie? Well, that’s part of the generational conundrum that is at the heart of embracing the play and appreciating R. Bruce Connelly’s performance, for Gracie is Gracie Allen, the ditzier part of the Burns and Allen comedy team that made it big in vaudeville, then on radio, in movies and finally on television, a career that spanned multiple decades.

And who is the man up there on the stage reminiscing? Well, it’s the other half of the team, George Burns. So, who’s George Burns? There’s the rub, because if you know who George and Gracie are then you’re into the play from the moment Connelly walks out onto the stage, cigar in hand, and has a conversation with God (whom he played in three movies – turns out God and George are big fans of each other). If you’re clueless, well, it will take some time for the play, written by Rupert Holmes and directed by Michael McDermott, to bring you up to speed…and you may never get to full open throttle. Hence, depending on when you arrived on this planet, you may well have a different experience watching “Gracie.”

Since I arrived six-plus decades ago, I had no problem relating to and appreciating Connelly’s take on the iconic comedian. Connelly has the mannerisms – the pensive, somewhat perplexed pauses, the open-mouthed smile – down pat, as well as the somewhat gravelly drawl with which he delivers his lines. He also does a great Jack Benny – Ah, who’s Jack Benny and what’s the deal with the violin? Again, another Checkpoint Charlie that either lets you into the play or keeps you out – Ah, what’s Checkpoint Charlie? Stop it. You’re making me feel my age.

The frame for the play is that Burns has just passed and now finds himself before the Pearly Gates. However, before he can enter Paradise and be united with his beloved Gracie, he is asked by God to audition. Audition? Yes. How? By telling the story of his life…and we time-travel back to the tenements of turn-of-the-century New York.

What follows is oral autobiography, as Connelly weaves a tale of a young Jewish boy who sells papers and ice to help his family make tattered ends meet, a boy who begins singing with three other Jewish lads and soon comes to realize that there might be money to be made by entertaining people.

Then it’s on to vaudeville, with the young Jewish boy taking on many roles (and names, most of them Irish) and finding limited success until he happens on a wisp of an Irish lass named Gracie. He suggests that they form a team. She hesitantly agrees. They rehearse and then try out their act, with Gracie delivering the straight lines and George following with the zingers. Only problem is, Gracie’s straight lines get more laughs than George’s comedic rejoinders. George, a savvy veteran of the vaudeville circuit, realizes that a change needs to be made in the act if the team is going to survive: the audience loves Gracie, and she’s getting the laughs, so…he becomes the straight man and Gracie, well, Gracie blossoms in all of her character’s ditziness. It’s a formula that will take them to stardom and last for decades.

Oddly enough, the play’s pacing mirrors the graph of Burns’ career, for things start to drag a bit as Connelly relates, perhaps with greater detail than necessary, the ups (few) and downs (many) of Burns’ vaudevillian efforts, but Gracie saves the day, for although there is no actress playing her, there are stills of her projected onto a screen (later, clips from the films they made and then from their television show), and then there’s her voice, high-pitched, somewhat scratchy, with every line she delivers seeming to end with a question mark, as if she herself is unsure of what she is saying. From the moment Gracie “appears,” the show takes on a new life, and it’s to Connelly’s and Holmes’ credit that Gracie is given her due. There’s an especially lovely moment, soon after Burns realigns the act and makes himself the foil to Gracie’s zaniness, when Connelly sits in a chair as we hear Gracie prattle on, her illogical statements making a weird sort of sense. With each line that Gracie delivers, Connelly turns towards the audience and smiles – he doesn’t have to say it, but we know he’s thinking, “That’s my Gracie.”

I wish I had had one of my grandsons with me during opening night, not only for his company but to ask him on the drive home what his take was on the show. He would not have recognized the theme from George and Gracie’s television show, he probably wouldn’t know who Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante or Fanny Brice were, but that’s okay. What I would have wanted to know is if he had gotten what the play was about. Did he see that, beyond show business, beyond fame and fortune, what’s important is the magical intermingling of two lives, an intermingling that was played out for all of America to see. Was he moved when George visits Gracie’s grave every week just to talk with her and keep her updated on what is happening in his life? Did the final moment of the play perhaps bring a tear to his eye, when Gracie tells George that he, himself, should say goodnight? I can only hope that he would have answered in the affirmative.

“Say Goodnight, Gracie” runs through Nov. 16. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

For CT Theater News and Reviews and Connecticut Critics Circle

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