PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Blonde in the Thunderbird: Somerstime, When the Livin' Ain't Easy

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The Blonde in the Thunderbird: Somerstime, When the Livin' Ain't Easy
 
J.K. Rowling, J.D. Salinger, Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, Gerald Schoenfeld, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Martha Stewart and anklet, Sir Ian McKellen, Joan Rivers, Sam Shepard, Sean Combs and Sylvia Miles were not to be found at the Brooks Atkinson July 16 when The Blonde in the Thunderbird (a.k.a. Suzanne Somers in the flashy flesh) pulled up for a limited Broadway stay, but Frankie Avalon showed.
Suzanne Somers; Frankie Avalon; Alan Hamel; Bruce Somers; Ken and Mitzie Welch; Susan Birkenhead
Suzanne Somers; Frankie Avalon; Alan Hamel; Bruce Somers; Ken and Mitzie Welch; Susan Birkenhead Photo by Aubrey Reuben

"I thought she was terrific tonight," the old teen idol invoked with commendable sincerity and enthusiasm at the after-party held two blocks south at Bolzano's, off Shubert Alley on West 45th. (You knew it as Charley O's and, before that, as MaBelle's, but recently it acquired a new life and, like Somers, is making its Broadway debut with this opening.)

Avalon, looking believably bronzed as if he were fresh from a beach party and a tad silver-haired as if he had stayed too long, admitted that he had never been on Broadway before — "beyond playing the Capitol and the Paramount in my teen idol days" — but he said he has been making the rounds regionally of late in Grease and would welcome a shot at doing his "Teen Angel" on The Great White Way. Sportily attired in his seasonal seersucker, he looked like one of the eternal icons of summer as he posed with Somers.

She was playing with the timeless icons herself, arriving at the restaurant in a stunningly reconstructed 1955 T-Bird, not unlike the one that originally transported her into film legend in George Lucas' dragstrip paean of 1973, "American Graffiti." Thirty-two years later, she's still the blonde vision who got away from us — in a hopped-up Thunderbird.

This was the short list of Icons on Parade, over before you knew, but no matter. What the Somers night lacked in star light, it made up in intimacy. She was surrounded by loved Ones — starting with her husband, Alan Hamel, who produced the event, her son Bruce Somers, her psychiatrist, her sister and her surviving brother. Not present — he had a club date, it was said — was Barry Manilow, who rated a special thanks in the program for getting the show into gear in the first place. It was Manilow who turned her on to Mitzie and Ken Welch, a couple of "Carol Burnett Show" scribes who wrote the show from two of Somers' 13 books, "Keeping Secrets" and "After the Fall." They also directed the show.

The Welches zip through the Somers saga in 90 minutes flat. "We're television," proffered Mitzie by way of an explanation. "We're used to saying things in a hurry. There was a lot of living that had to be cut. Originally, the show ran two and a half hours. She understood. She was great to work with, always wanting to put her best foot forward." There were few familiar faces among the first-nighters. Nobody seemed to think there was anything unusual about a show opening on Saturday night. It is unusual. The official opening is listed as Sunday July 17, although there is no performance that day, so the reviews will appear in Monday's papers. Most of the audience appeared to be business associates of Somers' — either through The Home Shopping Network or through Crown Publishing. CBS prexy Les Moonves and wife Julie Chen led the standing ovation.

One of the opening-night regulars, Variety vet Robert Hofler, was voicing the belief that this might be his last Broadway opening, give or take Lennon. His last day here will be Sept. 20; after that, he'll edit Variety on the West Coast (and, not so incidentally, drumbeat his book which will be published by Carroll & Graf in the fall, "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson," a biography of Henry Willson, the agent who discovered and dubbed the Tabs, Chads, Clints, Guys and Rorys of the cinema. )Newsday's second-string drama critic, Gordon Cox, is set to take over Hofler's New York duties.

The only tony Tony official on the premises was lyricist Susan Birkenhead, a nominator who, true to the bylaws, sees everything on Broadway. No truth to the suggestion that she was checking Somers out for the Cher role in her musicalized "Moonstruck." (Nor did she ask to see Sonny's widow, Mary Bono, who was on the guest list but impossible to spot.)

While Birkenhead prepares for her next project— a first-act read-through of her Flamingo Kid musical July 18 — she's plotting to turn another film into a Broadway musical: "Heaven Can Wait," the Warren Beatty version which has its roots in Robert Montgomery's "Here Comes Mr. Jordan." The book, by veteran Joseph Stein and his daughter Jennylynn, will gender-switch the main character who dies ahead of schedule and gets to go extra innings.

Now and forever, as the Cats slogan goes, Suzanne Somers can say she has played Broadway. "It was everything I thought it would be," she gushed shortly after she had made her way through the room full of friends, fans and admirers. "I'm thrilled by this."

The mistress of the Thighmaster looks great for 58 (actually, although she readily claims it, she won’t turn 58 until Oct. 16), and the story of those years she takes at 90mph in 90 minutes. Fasten your seat belts. "This business has been so good to me, even with all the conflicts I've had. I learned from every one of them. What I'm trying to say is, it doesn't matter what happened to you and it doesn’t matter where you come from — if you're willing to do the work, you can change your life. I did. And, if I can do it, so can you…"

In the great scheme of things, Somers sees herself falling somewhere between the resiliency of the Shmoo and the triumph of the human spirit. A Shmoo was a beach toy, armless and pear-shaped, with a weighted bottom, right out of Al Capp's Dogpatch. "My brother used to have one of those. You'd punch it, and it would come right back up," she said. "That's, pretty much, my life. I've been socked around so much, but I kinda roll up my sleeves every time and start all over again. My show is about the triumph of the human spirit. It takes you up and down and back up again. It makes quite a journey."

As roller coaster rides go, Somers' life and career have not been a straight line. "Eclectic" is the word that comes to mind. Her mute bit in "American Graffiti" (mouthing "I love you" to a seriously oversexed Richard Dreyfuss at a traffic light) led to appearances on the Johnny Carson show, which in turn led to four seasons of "Three's Company" and a very ugly public firing. Then she hung a right to Vegas, bumping and grinding into Sales.

"Who would have thought that dumb little $19 device would have revived my careers?" she muses about the Thighmaster she successfully peddled on television. "I was doing shows in Vegas, getting home at three in the morning, night after night. One night I said to Alan [her agent and husband of 37 years], 'We've got to find a way to make some money without showing up every night,' and he went out and found this Thighmaster commercial. I said, 'Do you think it'll hurt my career?' He said, 'Baby, for all intents and purposes, to the outside world, you don't really have a career. If it wins, you'll be a big hero. If it doesn't you’ll do another job.' Who knew 10 million people would buy that?"

Elaine Stritch: At Liberty set the highwater mark for confessional one-person shows, and, yes, Somers has seen it. "I saw it after we had put ours together," she was quick to note. "What I loved about it was there's no competition in these shows because her story is her story and my story is my story. They're completely different. If you tell your story well, people will come and they will get involved."

The Blonde in the Thunderbird plays to Sept. 3 at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

Suzanne Somers gives her opening night curtain call
Suzanne Somers gives her opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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