They Took Her T-Bird Away

Suzanne Somers in
Suzanne Somers in "The Blonde in the Thunderbird" on Broadway. (Paul Parks - Paul Parks)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2005

Is there any limit to our fascination with celebrity? Well, yes, apparently. The line can be confidently drawn at Suzanne Somers. The erstwhile sitcom star had the idea of bringing a one-woman tell-all show, "The Blonde in the Thunderbird," to Broadway. And Broadway shouted back: "Not interested!"

"The Blonde in the Thunderbird" -- a reference to her wordless appearance as a comely siren in "American Graffiti" -- opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on July 17. It closed seven days later. In theater parlance, "The Blonde in the Thunderbird" isn't a flop. It's a bomb. Ordinarily, bombs are nothing to celebrate, but in this case, audiences are sending a gloriously unmixed signal: We're not partial to this brand of bargain-basement confessional.

Perhaps the resounding failure of "The Blonde in the Thunderbird" will instill more fear in showbiz folk who entertain the idea of collecting the stories they have told to their shrinks and regurgitating them, along with their medical histories and marital troubles, onstage. Some of these solo shows have found an audience, of course. Billy Crystal made a mint last season with his autobiographical "700 Sundays," but how much better the show would have been had he not ladled on the mawkish account of his happy childhood and a maudlin discourse on his father's premature death. (Yes, funny people do have a distinct advantage in this type of venture.) Other comedians and actors, from Julia Sweeney to Elaine Stritch, have used their celebrity to build shows around personal bouts with such scourges as cancer and alcoholism.

A nadir's been reached, though, with "The Blonde in the Thunderbird." Somers was a big deal once upon a time, in a TV Guide cover girl sort of way, as the naive blonde on "Three's Company." Besides a stint as national pitchwoman for the Thighmaster, that about does it for her, accomplishmentwise. For some reason, though, she's gotten it into her head that she's a fixture in the collective American consciousness, that five years on a brainless sitcom in the late '70s and early '80s has granted her lifelong entree into our good graces.

The hubris is breathtaking. If any aspect of "The Blonde in the Thunderbird" is consistently entertaining, it's the comical notion that an audience is invested in the vicissitudes of Somers's career. Near the start of the show, she assumes the "classic" posture of Chrissie, the character she played on "Three's Company," a portrayal she feels certain millions still know and care about. Affixing rubber bands to her pigtails, she completes the "transformation," as if she were Laurence Olivier applying the hump for Richard III.

There's an element of self-delusion at work here, uncannily similar to what's portrayed in the superb and subtly devastating new HBO series "The Comeback." Lisa Kudrow, late of "Friends," plays the washed-up star of an early-'90s situation comedy who's been cast in a minor role in a dumb and cynical new TV sex-com, "Room and Bored." Kudrow's character, Valerie Cherish, is also being followed by a separate camera crew, recording her for a reality-series program about her return, and one of the running jokes of "The Comeback" is Valerie's cluelessness about her invisibility. Waiters and parking attendants fail to recognize her; behind her back, "Room and Bored" writers snicker and compose humiliating story lines for her.

Kudrow's Valerie is oblivious, or pretends not to notice, that her time has come and gone. (The irony-saturated title of her former starring vehicle is "I'm It.") All she knows is that even partial exposure to the limelight is preferable to being denied it altogether. At home, she maintains a shrine to her former success, a wall she calls the "It" Wall, covered with shots of her years on "I'm It." In a prominent position is her prized photo of herself in the guest's chair of "The Tonight Show," a picture she seems to think of as akin to a Titian. She describes it as "My Leno."

Valerie Cherish could step right into "The Blonde in the Thunderbird." During the Broadway show, in fact, Somers offers her own version of the "It" wall. Out of her scrapbooks have been culled the many magazine covers on which she once appeared, and they're projected onto a pair of onstage TV screens, which are also used to simulcast Somers's live image throughout the proceedings. Like Valerie, too, Somers is an unwitting example of celebrityhood as a crippling addiction. On "The Comeback," Valerie relives her sitcom glory with a campy, Norma Desmond-style ferocity, and in "The Blonde in the Thunderbird," Somers does the same.

The campiest moment of all comes toward the end of the show, when Somers pushes a souvenir cart onto the stage, packed with the perfume, jewelry and other tchotchkes she hawks on the Home Shopping Network. The gold-medal moment: She holds up a Thighmaster. It receives the biggest ovation of the night.

You're never really sure whether Somers is in on the joke. "Tonight," the 58-year-old actress declares, "you're going to get to know Suzie, the good, the bad and, oh yes, the ugly!" Whom, you wonder, is she really talking to? Does she really think an audience is all that curious? The night I attended, a tiny coterie of Somers fans was scattered about the house, but the rest of the audience appeared to be in a mild state of shock. Her songs prompted the kind of smattering of applause you hear at a PTA meeting after a vice principal discusses bus safety.

It's actually a hit musical, "A Chorus Line," that may be most responsible for making Broadway a haven for celebrity confessionals. The show, you might recall, featured an array of unknowns auditioning for spots in the chorus of a new production. The backbone of the show is the moment each dancer is given to reveal the details of his or her own troubled life. It's a therapy-driven formula that has been adapted by an assortment of singers and actors who have woven it into solo performances in which they also get to show off their other talents.

But what if you don't seem to have much talent? This is the predicament that Somers faces. "The Blonde in the Thunderbird" is, in a sense, a rock-bottom show about showbiz after you've hit rock bottom. Now that Broadway has proved such a hostile environment, maybe there's a cameo waiting for her on "The Comeback."


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