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John Cullum: An Accidental Star— another legend who's still going strong. . .
By Elyse Sommer
The creator and star of the 80-minute solo that was filmed a while back at the Irish Rep Theater and is currently being presented by them, together with the Vineyard Theatre and Godspeed Opera House, attributes his success to "lucky accidents." However, Cullum is no more an accidental star than Twyla Tharp. He was as determined to be an actor as she was to be a dancer.
Sure, it was luck that brought this Tennessee boy to New York to be an actor at a great time for plays and musicals. But it was talent, perseverance and plenty of chutzpah that made him a star. Whatever it took, Cullum clearly had enough of it to land a good role and an agent in less than a year.
With under an hour and a half to cover six decades of his love affair with the theater, Cullum's career seems to have moved forward at high speed, especially since his narrative is punctuated with songs — fittingly so, since his major hits have been in musical theater, starting with Camelot. But, hold on. . .before Camelot there was Cullum's introduction to Shakespeare who he tells us led him to musicals.
The way Cullum, who'd never seen or even read one of the Bard's plays in Tennessee, nabbed a minor role and understudied eight others in Joe Papp's Central Park prodution of Hamlet is just one of the stories about his long love affair with the theater — both classic and modern plays and muscals. That he now needs a magnifying glass to read the Shakespeare book he bought for a dollar at the Strand Book Store before that Central Park summer, is Cullum's only admission that the trials of aging have not passed him by.
From the looks of him, time has been kind to him. He's still trim, dapper, straight-backed. Besides plenty of energy he's also retained his sense of humor and charm. His singing voice is a bit husky and helped by subtle miking, but he still manages to chew what in this piece is the non-existent scenery.
Essentially, John Cullum: An Accidental Star is a stand-up memoir, narrated and suung with its not-so-accidental star perched on a stool. As a memoir in print is usually highlighted with photos, this one is illustrated and enlivened with songs from the musicals that made him a legend and won him two Tonys (Shenandoah and On the Twentieth Century).
Cullum's anecdotes about his friendship with Camelot co-stars Julie Andrews and Richard Burton, along with remembrances of other golden era shows like Shenandoah, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and 110 in the Shade make this a history of an era seen through the lens of someone who was very much a part of it.
While Cullum became a star in those golden oldie musicals, he didn't just fade away when darker, more sardonic shows like Urinetown came along. Though initially turned off by that cheeky parody, he ended up zestfully playing a major role. The Scottsboro Boys, his last Broadway musical, was even darker. As Cullum sums it up, "justice not done." Surely a show that warrants a new production once large-cast shows with sophisticated production values come back.
Though Cullum, like Tharp, keeps the focus on his career, he hasn't sacrifced his personal life but remains happily married to his wife Emily. It's too bad that he and the presenters of this show didn't have the archives that made Twyla Moves an exciting use of Zoom technology. That's why younger viewers without memories might find even the short run time a bit slow at times.
Being an old-timer myself, I did get to see and write about many of Cullums's performances. My reiviews are still available to read if you type John Cullum into the enhaned Google search box on top of my blog and streaming feature links. To actually watch a full Cullum performance there's the invaluable Lincoln Ceenter Film and Tape Archive which will on e again be available to anyone with a library card once they reopen. In the meantime, if your log onto pbs.org and the link below it will take you to the Cullum catalogue.
John Cullum at the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT)
See the production notes at the side for details about the creative team, performance dates and ticket information.
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John Cullum: An Accidental Star
Conceived by John Cullum and Jeff Berger
Book by David Thompson
Music supervisor: Georgia Stitt
Music director/pianist: Julie McBride
Directed by Lonny Price and Matt Cowart
Streaming April 8 - April 22-- extrnded to My 6th
Filmed at the Irish Rep Theatre earlier this year
Presented by the Vineyard Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, and the Irsh Rep Theatre
Running Time: 80 Miutes
Tickets start at $28.50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer