Johnson waxes the woodwork, which is to say he’s a ventriloquist, if we may use the V-word so early in the write-up. Yes, he talks to—the politically correct word, he says, is “wooden Americans,” but his show has considerably more depth, breath, height and heart than that. Even his “two”-of-the-moment varies in the extreme—from an unruly handful of a chimp named Darwin to an unkempt vulture to a talking tennis ball to a critter drawn from scratch to his best-known creation: the boorishly abrasive Bob from TV’s “Soap.”
Gluing the evening together are biographical tidbits, some quite poignant, about what turns a towhead from Abernathy, TX into this line of play—plus The History of Ventriloquism through the years, funny parts emphasized. A surprising, entertaining mix!
Wicked’s original Wizard of Oz, the Tony- and Oscar-winning Joel Grey, checked out Johnson’s vocal gymnastics on opening night—tantamount to occult royalty—and the other Oscar-winner on hand, Celeste Holm, deemed the show “fascinating and spellbinding.”
Like Johnson, Junior’s rang up a Broadway debut, hosting the opening-night party. The famous Brooklyn eatery with the legendary strawberry cheesecake recently opened up a Broadway branch, off Shubert Alley on West 45th, replacing Bolzano’s (which ran slightly longer than the one and only Broadway show it opened: The Blonde in the Thunderbird).
Pigs-in-the-banket kept comin’ before the serious potato salad, ribs and burgers were brought out. Johnson lorded over the festivities like the affable, unflappable host of a Texas barbecue, glad-handing like a politician, posing for photos, tending to the wants and needs of friends and family, who appeared to have been there in abundance. You’d not suspected he had just the heavy-lifting of 100-minute solo exercise—and that is counting “a little help of his (wooden) friends.” At 57, he still looks very much like the kid who never grew up—and, if he did grow up, his sense of play grew up expedentially. What does one who began live-entertaining in the high-school auditorium and has been doing all his life make of Broadway? “Well, I didn’t know what to expect,” he admitted. “They haven’t written the primer for it so you just have to do it, y’know.” But I couldn’t feel greater. Broadway is the epitome of live theatre, so I just batted the hell out of it, I hope.”
It’s no exaggeration to say ventriloquism and magic have been Johnson’s life work (minus a few early formative years for him to find out about Harry Houdini and decide that would be the way to go). The sock that serves as a snake early in the show was something he dreamed up as a teenager, “and that’s the actual snake my mother made for me to take to high school.” Any artist, he feels, is led by his own particular art—and that is a good thing, he believes. “If I were talking about my music, I would have the same passion, the same dedication, the same feeling about that as I have about ventriloquism.”
A pair of lyricists-directors at the opening—David Zippel and Barry Kleinbort—praised Johnson’s ways of words (even if they didn’t rhyme). Zippel, who had a highly lyrical night at Merkin Hall last Monday, was with one of his featured singers, Anna Bergman, who had great luck that evening with “The Ingenue,” a song Zippel wrote with Wally Harper for Barbara Cook, and “The Measure of Love,” a song from a so-far-unproduced Larry Gelbart-Cy Coleman musical about Napoleon Bonaparte (titled, sans period, N).
One of the eight producers of The Two and Only!, Stewart F. Lane, said that he’s saving his Palace for the incoming Legally Blonde. He is also a published landlord-producer: In the spring, Heinemann is bringing out his latest tome, "Let’s Put on a Show," a how-to-do-just-that guide for the theatrically inclined Mickeys-and-Judys of this century.
Glenn Young, about to start a new publishing list, was singing Johnson’s praises at the party. “To think that many characters could come out of one amazing mind and body staggers the imagination,” he said. “You start out thinking it’s sort of a nightclub act, and then, as it goes on, you’re brought in closer and closer, and pretty soon you’re trapped.”
If there was a member of the audience—not from the immediate or extended family—that glowed with particular pride on opening night, it was Jay Sandrich, the television director who hired Johnson for “Soap” (even if it mean breaking up Johnson’s existing act with the sweet-faced Squeaky and replacing him with the smart-aleck Bob). “I know how hard it was to get the show to this stage,” relayed the other Jay, “and I’m thrilled for him. I was just saying to his folks it must have been interesting growing up with someone so creative. I didn’t know he could write so well when he was doing ‘Soap.’ He is such a sweet, wonderful person, then he got the character of Bob in his hands, and Bob would say things that Jay would never even think of. That made Jay such a joy to work with.”
Conspicuously absent from the opening-night bash was Bob, who hoped Lucy the Slut would bob by from Avenue Q. A half a block wouldn’t have killed her. Who did she think she was? Ann-Margret?