"Let's see some of that wonderful smile," cajoled one of the papparazzi buzzing around Whoopi Goldberg, snapping away, as she arrived at The China Club after the opening of her 20th anniversary one-woman show, Whoopi (nee Whoopi Goldberg), Nov. 17.
From Top: Whoopi Goldberg; Joy Behar; Meredith Vieira; Alex Martin; Sutton Foster; David Garrison and Maureen McGovern; Raul Esparza and Lea DeLaria
From Top: Whoopi Goldberg; Joy Behar; Meredith Vieira; Alex Martin; Sutton Foster; David Garrison and Maureen McGovern; Raul Esparza and Lea DeLaria Photo by Aubrey Reuben

The smile widened marginally but still fell short of that blinding flash of white teeth that can knock the props out from under you at close range. What we had here was a pooped Whoop, dutifully and politely playing to the end of the string of her premiere night. She'd given at the office—the Lyceum, where it all began for her two decades before—and she'd given unsparingly, a gallery of a half-dozen endearingly eccentric characters designed to remind you Whoopi Goldberg the actress predated Whoopi Goldberg the comedienne.

When a reporter asked who was her favorite in this dazzling display, she gracefully danced around the question, claiming not to have one. "They're all in my head," she averred. "Anyone one of them could give me an aneurysm if I give the wrong answer."

After fielding a few more questions, she walked heavily up to another landing at The China Club to pay her respects to friends, family and well-wishers who had gathered. Then she took an early limo home, just as other shows in the area were breaking.

It had been a long day for her, beginning with "The View" where she plugged her limited 88-performance run. Two purveyors of "The View," Joy Behar and Meredith Vieira, were among the first-nighters, in fact. (The gaggy Behar, after she ran the papparazzi gamut, turned around, whipped out a sure-shot Instamatic and flashed back at them.)

Mike Nichols, whose billing as producer is four times larger than his co-producers, didn't make it to the party at all, but he was very much in evidence in the audience (with wife Diane Sawyer). No one is credited for "directing" the show, nor was anyone 20 years ago; that production was "supervised" and "presented" by Nichols, and he continued to downplay his input. "Just talking" is the extent of his Goldberg contribution this time around. "She doesn't need anything or anyone," he insisted. "I was [just] her friend." We should all have a friend who'd reach down into a dinky little black box of a theatre on West 19th and bring us uptown to Broadway and a 20-year star ride. Nichols caught her act at the insistence of an actress he had steered to two Tonys—Judith Ivey—and he then transplanted her in starlight. Happily, Whoopi's Samaritans still work: Ivey just finished her own one-woman show (on Martha Mitchell) at The Public, Dirty Tricks, and Nichols is prepping Eric Idle's loony-binge, Spamalot, for Broadway (but first Chicago on Dec. 21).

The Goldberg menagerie includes a physically handicapped love-object who can turn on a dime into a pregnant, self-proclaimed "surfing chick." Both characters are pretty much as Whoopi played them the first time. Also back is "Fontaine" (a stoned slacker who now teaches ethics in college), but his commentary on the political clime is down-to-the-wire immediate. Also new to the mix is a "Law and Order" TV fanatic who shoots her hubby when he touches the dial, and a Texas matron confronting the mysteries of menopause.

For an encore, Whoopi trots out—with some apology for being dated—the little black girl who wears a white shirt over her head pretending it's her "long, luxurious blonde hair." Only recently, via Naomi Campbell and Queen Latifah and others, have young African-American girls acquired glamorous role models of their own race. Before, said Whoopi, she used the white shirt and so did her daughter. The skit ends with her asking a woman in the audience to come up near the stage so she could touch the woman's beautiful hair.

The woman she selected on opening night turned out—we learned later at the party—to be her daughter, Alex Martin, 39, who was all of ten when she saw her mother on Broadway the first time. "I remember it like it was yesterday," she said. "I understand it better now."

Martin and her children—Mara, 15; Jersey, 8; Mason, 6—ganged up and talked Granny Whoopi back to Broadway. Hal Luftig, with whom Whoopi produced Thoroughly Modern Millie, joined that chorus. "When she called me in August and said `I'm think of doing this'—which, for an actor, means yes!—I was ecstatic. I remember seeing this show 20 years ago. It was a turning point in my life. I'd never seen anything like it before. It's like when you go to that Christmas dinner and there's that aunt who says what everyone is thinking. To me, that's Whoopi. She says what we're thinking, what we're feeling, what we're experiencing, and she puts it out there in an accessible, funny, smart way."

Goldberg the producer and Goldberg the performer are comfortably matched, in Luftig's view. "She's a very savvy lady. She got us the rights to Millie. We had the hardest time with Universal Studios, and Whoopi made one phone call, and boom! Done deal."

Thoroughly Modern Millie herself—Tony winner Sutton Foster—made the first-night rush, being just around the corner rehearsing her newest role, Jo March, in Little Women, which goes into previews Dec. 7 at the Virginia and opens there Jan. 23.

"I'd never seen Whoopi before," Foster admitted a little sheepishly. "Maureen McGovern [her Marmee in Little Women] said she saw it 20 years ago and gave people Christmas presents of tickets to her show. So I was thrilled to finally catch her."

David Garrison, who's doing the Encores! Bash Sunday and Monday at City Center, escorted McGovern to this edition. There were a lot of repeaters among the first-nighters, and many went up to Nichols to inform him of that. "Oh, cool. A loyalist," he shot back.

Jane Powell, Mama Mizner of Sondheim's aborted Bounce, arrived with husband Dick Moore, both raving about Billy Crystal's now-previewing contribution to the one-person show epidemic, 700 Sundays. Her MGM classic, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, is selling briskly on the DVD front in its 50th anniversary edition, but, she noted sharply, "I don't get anything out of it." She did say she sent condolences to the widow of co-star Howard Keel, who died Nov. 7 in Palm Springs. "He did everything he ever wanted to do," Powell said. "He had a very full life. He played golf at the time. He played poker all the time. Julie, his wife, gave him the life that allowed him to do all of that. He was 85."

The Moores were guests of producer Leonard Soloway, as were Sally Ann Howes and her husband, Douglas Rae. She was Truly Scrumptious in the 1968 movie of Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and at the China Club party she got to meet Raul Esparza, who's at the controls of that flying automobile when the London hit alights April 28 on Broadway (at the Ford Center). "You have a built-in audience," she promised.

Esparza counted himself among that number, including Chitty with Mary Poppins among his fondest films of childhood. "In fact," he said, "I said to Adrian Noble and Gillian Lynne [the show's director and choreographer] that I'd like to try more of what Dick Van Dyke does than what's in the London show, the old music-hall body language." Howes gave a firm, affirmative nod. Additional star-power kicked well before the stroke of midnight when the Cinderella cast—Christopher Sieber, Renee Taylor, Lea DeLaria, Ana Gasteyer—and conductor Gerald Steichen spilled into the China Club. Sieber hinted at a big show on the horizon.

Prop impresario George Fenmore was also back on the scene after an absence of a few shows, although Whoopi didn't tax greatly. "I provide her with two bottles of Fiji Water per night, but she didn't drink either one of them tonight." He seemed a bit disappointed.

Goldberg's old flame, Frank Langella, was similarly disposed to Fiji Water when he did Match, said Fenmore. "That was the only water he would drink. Trouble was, there was an insufficient supply in the United States. They had none in the warehouse. We were waiting for another boatload from Fiji, but the show closed before the boat came in."

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