Sunday, January 11, 2015

Review: Chris Lemmon Becomes a Legend in Jack Lemmon Returns


“Music was his dream but acting was his passion.” That’s how Chris Lemmon describes his famous father Jack in Jack Lemmon Returns, the 90-minute play with songs that has settled into the intimate black box theater (The Edye) at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The show is a tribute to the man who meant the world to him, and offers not only a look into their personal relationship as father and son, but also takes the audience behind the scenes with the kind of Hollywood stories you read about but never get to hear firsthand.

What is different about this one-man show however is that, unlike many productions that rely on someone telling stories about a celebrity, Chris actually steps into his father’s shoes and tells the stories as the celebrity. In essence, he becomes Jack Lemmon – talking about his career, his personal difficulties, and in a very meta twist, even his son. It took me a few minutes to adjust to the transformation, mainly because there is such a striking resemblance between the two. Chris assumes the mannerisms and vocal patterns of his father so perfectly that at times it felt like I was watching the father and not the son. It’s a biographical piece told in an autobiographical manner from the fascinating perspective of a boy who witnessed it all.

Jack Lemmon Returns is based on Chris’s memoir, A Twist of Lemon, and contains priceless stories that have been lovingly shaped by writer-director Hershey Felder. Using only a piano and a chair, with photographs projected on the screens behind him, Chris (as Jack) talks about how he first learned he could make people laugh; his fascination with the work of French actor & mime, Jean-Louis Barrault; and the benefits of studying War Service Sciences at Harvard when it came to understanding producers. 

Struggling actors who spend hours in class will find comfort in the knowledge that even the great Jack Lemmon had to learn how to act on camera. Already successful as a stage actor, it was George Cukor who taught Lemmon how to translate that success to another medium. Take after take Cukor would coach the actor to give “less” until eventually Lemmon responded by saying, “If I give any less I won’t be acting.” “Exactly,” said Cukor. And so go the realizations that help an actor become great.

An accidental meeting with director John Ford, who Lemmon didn’t recognize at the time, led to a spit-in-a-handshake agreement to portray Ensign Pulver in Mr. Roberts, a role he desperately wanted to play and earned him an Academy Award. There are poignant stories about his enduring friendship with Walter Matthau, the brother he always wanted, and his struggle with alcohol that paralleled the journey of his character Joe Clay in Days of Wine and Roses. He also talks about the ladies; humorous stories about Marilyn Monroe and Shirley MacLaine, and his relationships with his two wives, Cynthia Stone (Chris’s mother) and Felicia Farr.

Jack was a self-taught musician who instilled in Chris a love of music at an early age and it was at the piano that Chris, the actor, displayed a most delicately emotional connection to his father. The ache in his jazz improvisations combined with his classical dexterity expressed more clearly than in any other moment onstage the forever bond forged between father and son. That’s really the takeaway from this show - that after all is said and done it’s the love that remains.

Jack Lemmon was a complex individual; a man who was driven, compassionate, and devastatingly human. How that translated to the screen, and his ability to make an audience laugh and cry at the same time, was what made him a star. Chris Lemmon pays his father the ultimate compliment in this affectionate homage. Touching and full of sweet surprises, it’s a lovely way to spend an evening in the magical presence of an old friend.  

Jack Lemmon and Chris Lemmon at the piano

Chris Lemmon

JACK LEMMON RETURNS
January 7 – February 1, 2015 
The Eli & Edythe Broad Stage
1310 11th St. Santa Monica CA 90401
Tickets: (310) 434-3200
www.thebroadstage.com

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