For many, it’s a startling paradox: those who make us laugh are often the ones who carry the deepest emotional scars.
From Charlie Chaplin to Stephen Colbert, comedians have a remarkable ability to overcome traumatic childhoods, triumph over adversity and transform tragic circumstances into humorous ones.
The same goes for Carol Burnett, one of the most comically gifted entertainers in the history of American television. Burnett may be best known for her wacky comedy sketches in the award-winning “The Carol Burnett Show” and her unforgettable role as Miss Hannigan in the film adaptation of “Annie,” but her rise to stardom wasn’t easy.
“Comedy is tragedy plus time,” she once said.
The child of two divorced alcoholic parents, Burnett spent most of her childhood in a dingy one-room apartment in Hollywood with her endearingly eccentric and hypochondriac grandmother, Nanny. Disillusioned by the empty promises of Tinseltown, Burnett’s mother, an aspiring entertainment writer, struggled with alcohol addiction until she faded away into the bottle completely, leaving Nanny to raise her granddaughter.
Years later, the funny and fearless comedienne chronicled the bittersweet events of her impoverished childhood in a memoir, “One More Time,” which was later adapted for the stage by Burnett and her late daughter, Carrie Hamilton, in a semi-autobiographical play called Hollywood Arms.
Spanning a 10-year period from 1941 to 1951, “Hollywood Arms” is a searing yet humorous portrayal of three generations of women living on welfare. As in life, the play is a “dramedy”; it is both dramatic and comedic, with a colorful and unforgettable cast of characters inspired by very real people.
And now Maui audiences will have an opportunity to meet them – and laugh and cry with them.
Directed by Michael Pulliam, Maui OnStage will debut “Hollywood Arms” beginning Friday through May 5 at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. The production is the Hawaii premiere of the play, which received a Tony Award in 2003 for Best Actress in a Play (Michelle Pawk) in the role of Burnett’s mother.
Pulliam said he first heard about “Hollywood Arms” while reading Hamilton’s obituary, which piqued his interest in bringing the play to the Valley Isle.
“I love true stories and serious dramas, but this show also has big band-era-music and a great deal of sarcastic humor, too,” he said. “It fit neatly into what I think I do best. I have no future plans to direct, I just wanted to direct this show.”
Pulliam equates “Hollywood Arms” to the iconic film, “Terms of Endearment,” an immensely rich film that is neither comedy nor drama – it’s both.
“There will be tears with this show, but much of those tears are happy,” he said. “As we all know, in the end, all of Carol Burnett’s dreams came true.”
Maui audiences will meet Burnett’s no-nonsense grandmother, Nanny (Cat Hayes), her alcoholic mother Louise (Kristin Jones) and Helen (a pseudonym for Burnett), portrayed both as a pre-adolescent child (Marley Mehring) and as a young woman on the cusp of stardom (Julianna Scharnhorst). Other cast members include Rick Scheideman as Jody, Helen’s alcoholic father; Dean Watt as Bill, Louise’s second husband; and Brianna Kenar as Alice, Helen’s younger sister.
“This is a play that will appeal to anyone who’s had – or known – a dysfunctional family,” said Hayes, who plays the character of Nanny. “And I think that’s pretty much everyone.”
Apparently, even Burnett herself is thrilled to hear “Hollywood Arms” will be taking center stage at the Historic Iao Theater.
“She sent our cast and crew a handwritten well wishes letter,” said Pulliam. “It speaks volumes about her class and kindness.”
* Performances of “Hollywood Arms” are Friday through May 5; 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. on Sundays at the Historic Iao Theater. Reserved seating tickets range from $17 to $28. To order tickets or for more information, call 242-6969 or you can purchase reserved seats online at www.mauionstage.com.
Also this week
Maui Academy of Performing Arts’ “Fresher Ahi” continues through Sunday. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at Steppingstone Playhouse in Queen Ka’ahumanu Center. The show stars Francis Tau’a, Derek Nakagawa and Kathy Collins; directed by David C. Johnston. Tickets are $16 for adults, $14 seniors and $12 students (18 and younger). To purchase tickets, call 244-8760, visit www.mauiacademy.org, or stop by the Customer Service Kiosk at Queen Ka’ahumanu Center.
ProArts will present Neil Simon’s “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” May 3 through May 19 at ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. Mel Edison is a well-paid executive of a high-end Manhattan firm, which has suddenly hit the skids, and he gets the axe. Then he’s robbed, and his psychiatrist dies with $23,000 of his money. Mel does the only thing left for him to do – he has a nervous breakdown. “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” is directed by Kristi Scott, stars John Peterson as Mel and Jennifer Rose as his devoted wife, Edna. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Reserved seats cost $20. Kamaaina nights featuring discounts for Hawaii residents are scheduled for May 4, 9 and 16. For tickets or more information, call 463-6550.
Maui Academy of Performing Arts presents “Moves,” featuring its advanced dance students in an exciting dance showcase highlighting a variety of styles including jazz, hip hop and contemporary. In addition, this year’s show will feature guest artists Ampersand Dance Company. The one-night-only performance is at 7:30 p.m. May 5 in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater. Tickets are $15 (plus applicable fees). For tickets or more information, visit the MACC box office, call 242-7469 or order online at www.mauiarts.org.