Tuesday, October 19, 2010

When Garbo Talks! Premieres at ICT

When Garbo Talks
Jessica Burrows and Christopher Carothers

Greta Garbo’s iconic career was built upon mystery. The elusive Swedish-born star was well-known for her incomparable onscreen talent and fierce dedication to her art, but very little is actually known about her off-screen personae.

The musical bio When Garbo Talks!, playing at International City Theatre in Long Beach, attempts to fill in the story but much of the mystery still remains once the tale is finished. It is the first full length musical and last work by Buddy Kaye (book & lyrics) and Mort Garson (music), and was completed following Kaye’s death by his son Richard.

Incorporating input he received from both Greta Garbo and John Gilbert’s family members (Gilbert had been one of Garbo’s significant romances), Kaye continued to shape the musical and ready it for production. Gilbert’s daughter, Leatrice, was especially helpful with insight into her father, according to Kaye. Indeed, in this version of the story, Gilbert’s character (portrayed by Christopher Carothers) is one that is easiest to understand.


Chronologically, the musical follows Garbo’s early days in Sweden, auditioning for the Royal Dramatic Theatre Academy and meeting her mentor, Mauritz Stiller, through her arrival in America, and rise to fame in silent film and talkies.

Kaye has fictionalized some additional events to fit into the musical’s timeline, which spans 1922 – 1929, like the question of Garbo’s sexuality. She was reported to have been bisexual and had relationships with both men and women, including a well-publicized relationship with poet/playwright, Mercedes de Acosta. Since she didn’t actually meet Acosta until 1932, Kaye redirected that aspect of the story to her Swedish acting coach, Signe Enwall.

Garbo also had a difficult time on the set of her second American film, The Temptress. During production she received a telegram from Stockholm informing her of the death of her sister Alva at age 23. MGM did not allow her to return to Sweden for the funeral, and shortly thereafter her mentor, Stiller, was replaced with a new director. Stiller returned to Sweden and later died, but in the musical, it is the death of Stiller that gets the letter scene, not Alva.


The actors, led by a gorgeous Jessica Burrows as Greta and Michael Stone Forrest as Stiller, give this show their all. Both have beautiful voices and have done a great deal of work creating their characters, but their biggest challenge is the show’s writing. The mostly predictable story of a star’s rise to fame offers little real insight into the enigmatic star and her relationships.

I also found it difficult to accept Greta Garbo as a soprano. To me, that mysterious actress with the long-awaited deep, exotic speaking voice begged to sing in a lower vocal register. I wanted to hear that accent in a rich alto, even though Burrows' sang beautifully.

Garson's songs have the feel of Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml’s early operettas of the period, and do contain some beautiful melodies. Missing, however, is the charm of Buddy Kaye’s lyrics in songs like “A-You’re Adorable,” “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” and “Till The End of Time.”

There are moments when Debra Garcia Lockwood’s lighting zeros in and captures Burrows’ magnificent face, alone (usually at the end of a scene), that we see the potential in the silences to create the Garbo allure. Director Jules Aaron and his team have done their best, but this would be a more fitting musical tribute if it had the benefit of a truly compelling book, and supporting characters that each had an arc of their own. Until then, Garbo the woman remains as mysterious as ever.

When Garbo Talks! runs through November 7th at International City Theatre in Long Beach. For tickets go to www.ictlongbeach.org/.

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Comedy Faceposted by Ellen Dostal, MusicalsInLA @
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