One-man show. These words tend to raise hackles and lower expectations, and with reason. The solo performance, whether assayed by a legend or a lunch waiter, too often devolves into a foot race between the audience’s patience and the actor’s ego. That’s not to say the form is a guaranteed nonstarter: In 2004, Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays succeeded largely on the strength of our affection for Crystal the Man.
Martin Short the Man is nowhere to be found in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, a one-man show that, in almost every way, isn’t. For starters, there’s a multitalented supporting cast of five — including composer Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) and the deft Brooks Ashmanskas — to whom Short graciously defers when appropriate. Of course, Short is the show, but I wouldn’t say he’s at the center of this all-singing, all-dancing, occasionally exhausting spectacular. There’s no center here, no Person, only Personality and the familiar characters it infuses: amoebic interviewer Jiminy Glick, who plucks a (sometimes famous) victim from the audience for an excruciatingly hilarious Q&A; puckered songwriter Irving Cohen; even (in a wisely brief cameo) Ed Grimley, to name but a few. Then there’s Short’s greatest creation — Martin Short, that fierce, fey Canadian show pony who pleads facetiously for your sympathy but wants only your applause. He’s the anti-Crystal, and just in time. How positively refreshing to watch a great performer just perform, already.
The tone is set early on, with a yarn about a cabdriver who asked, ”’What is the name of that film you made that I hated?’ And it dawned on me,” Short continues, ”there’s a man who hates me for my work, but doesn’t know me well enough to hate me for who I am.” With that, he plunges into a personal history that’s neither personal nor historical nor true. Yet it’s a remarkably honest chronicle not of the Man, but of the Ham and his influences, with special emphasis on the musicals (A Chorus Line, West Side Story, Wicked…I stopped counting) and stage greats (Bob Fosse, Tommy Tune, Elaine Stritch) he lovingly roasts alongside mainstream gimmes like Britney Spears and Joan Rivers.
The show has a rough childhood: Short busks through his made-up juvenile years in sketches and songs that range from indifferent (”Don’t Wanna Be Me”) to desperate (”Babies,” a.k.a. ”Big Titties”). But by the time his destiny as an entertainer coalesces around the Godspell-esque ”Step Brother de Jesus,” the show has gathered the momentum of a long, controlled pratfall, tumbling toward a heroically antisentimental finale. We get virtually nothing of Marty the Man (who, incidentally, lost both of his parents and a brother by age 20). But we get all of Marty the Performer — the only Marty we know.