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A CurtainUp Review
Bea Arthur on Broadway:
Just Between Friends

It was so creatively rewarding . . .  doing material that was bright, witty, provocative, literate, sophisticated, adult and daring.
--- Bea Arthur on her Maude/ Golden Girls experience. She may have been a shy little girl, but she's certainly not shy about patting herself on the back for the accomplishments of her long show biz career.
Bea Arthur
Bea Arthur
Maybe to provide at least one costume change, Bea Arthur should make her entrance with a little apron tied over her navy blue pants, turtle neck top with sequined jacket. After all, she launches into her one-woman show with recipes she uses for the intimate little dinners she likes to give. But while she details how to marinate the dinner party's centerpiece, a leg of lamb à la Julia Childs, we never find out anything about the people at her dinner table. You see, the whole purpose of this opening shtik is to make the audience feel as if they're Bea's guests instead of having plunked down $50 to $65 for a seat at the Booth Theatre. Ninety minutes and numerous songs and anecdotes later, they're sent home with the equivalent of a doggie bag, Arthur's favorite recipes for using the leftover lamb.

Considering that she's become a household name by way of her career on the home screen, the leg of lamb routine is a canny way connect with her many Maude and Golden Girls fans. The same is true of the way she also tips her snowy halo of hair to the gay men for whom her 5-foot-9-inch frame and bass baritone voice have an iconic appeal. Her menu of songs and anecdotes is peppered with gay jokes and has her put the Arthurian stamp of approval on Vermont's Civil Union bill.

Unfortunately, this canniness is also why Bea Arthur On Broadway: Just Between Friends comes across less like a warm visit with this 78-year-old funny lady than a tightly controlled performance, without a single unplanned penetrating look and pause. It's a performance as carefully calibrated to please as each white hair is firmly teased into place. As for the content, Arthur's many years in show business (the sitcom stardom in middle age, followed a stage career that included many tryouts as well as major Broadway roles (The Three-Penny Opera, Fiddler On the Roof and Mame) provide a rich trove of funny anecdotes. And Arthur delivers her collected treasures with her usual penetrating looks and perfect timing. What she clearly enjoys most is singing, especially songs she never got to sing on stage, like "Pirate Jenny" which belonged to Lotte Lenya (in Three Penny Opera) and a Mama Rose song from the role she always coveted but never got (Gypsy). While she's more of a sprechsinger than a chanteuse, she does bring her own distinctive persona to the delivery.

The best of her anecdotes about the famous people who have crossed her career path is her backstage meeting with Mae West. However, this amusing bit sent my mind wandering to Claudia Shear's terrific play about Mae West (Dirty Blonde ) which had its Broadway run around the corner at the Helen Hayes just a couple of years ago. Endearing and musically gifted as Arthur's accompanist and straight man Billy Goldenberg is he's no Bob Stillman, the pianist in Dirty Blonde who also added a number of interesting characters to that play.

With another septegenarian, Elaine Stritch, also opening her solo show on Broadway this week, comparisons are inevitable. Having seen Stritch downtown, (review ) my reaction is that Stritch's show is an infinitely more rounded and richly flavored experienc. Stritch allows herself to be known. Arthur, though bare-footed (as a result of an accident during the show's opening in the Midwest), bares nothing except as it pertains to her career resume.

With yet another 70-something diva, Barbara Cook, on stage two nights a week at Lincoln Center, wouldn't it be fun to have a week -- or even a single night -- with all three of these senior citizens together on stage. Maybe Julia Childs could be there, basting a leg of lamb. But come to think of it, Childs is enough of a star in her own right to create a new genre -- a Broadway cooking show.

Bea Arthur on Broadway:
Just Between Friends

Written by Bea Arthur, Billy Goldenberg and Charles Randolph Wright
Starring Bea Arthur with Billy Goldenberg at the piano
Scenic Consultant: Ray Klausen
Production Consultants: Mark Waldrop and Richard Maltby, Jr
Lighting and Sound Design: Matt Berman.
Running Time: 90 minutes, without intermission
Booth, 222 W. 45th St. (7th/8th Aves), 212/239-6200
1/29/02-3/24/02; opening 2/17/02
. Tues-Sat 8pm; Wed and Sat matinees at 2 pm and Sunday matinees at 3pm -- $50-65.
On February 28th the producers converted the limited to an open run.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 20th performance.
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