By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Bill Johnson has made a career out of portraying the late, great Bob Hope in several stage productions in his hometown of Las Vegas, on the international stage and in recent years at a recurring production – “Thanks for the Memories: Bob Hope and His All-Star Tour” – at the National World War II Museum’s BB’s Stage Door Canteen. What Johnson knows that few recognize is how difficult it is to carry off impersonating the man who might have been America’s greatest comedian of the last 100 years.
Old Ski Nose, as Hope was known, possessed a distinctive, very nasal pattern of speech that few have been able to duplicate. His rapid fire jokes were the result of his paying the very best joke writers of his day and his delivery was always very fast and deliberate. Johnson bears not only a remarkable physical resemblance to Hope, but his patter is so good that one can almost forget that the real Hope is not on stage delivering zingers one after the other.
Johnson’s first staging was so successful that entertainment director (now the Bob and Delores Hope entertainment director) Victoria Reed elected to do what she does so well. She decided to write another original staging with him at its epicenter that took off, more or less, from where the last show ended. On the Road with Bob Hope & Friends tells the story of Hope’s never-ending USO tours to entertain American servicemen on foreign shores during the Korean and Vietnam War eras.
Appropriately running every weekend through the Thanksgiving weekend that ends November 26, Johnson stars as the turkey on this festive repast while the trimmings are six of the area’s most extremely talented female vocalists and dancers portraying some of the most tasty and iconic of feminine figures ever to share a stage with the veteran showman.
Half of those lovely ladies – Margi Cates, Christian Tarzetti and Emily Gyan (soon to be replaced by Christine Tonry) – get the story rolling with their depiction of the Taylor Maids, a 1950s trio that toured with Hope in Korea. An old polka number titled “Hoop-Dee-Doo” serves as an opportunity to showcase the vocal delights of each of the three performers.
Leave it to Reed to resurrect an almost forgotten page from history. The Taylor Maids were essentially unknown siblings who were discovered and catapulted into a career that lasted into 1956. Backed on the USO tour by bandleader Les Brown and his Band of Renown, they appeared on stage with Hope, Hollywood royalty and other popular singers of the day.
One of those was blonde bombshell Marilyn Maxwell, played in this production by the lovely Kate Gulotta, who performs a delightful duet with Johnson of the Ray Livingston and Jay Evans song “All About Love” from the film “Off Limits.” That was one of two films in which Maxwell performed alongside with Hope, the other being the more well-known “The Lemon Drop Kid.”
While screen goddess Marilyn Monroe also famously toured with the USO in Korea (not with Hope), the show opts to have him appear alongside another buxom blonde, Jayne Mansfield. Also played by Gulotta, she performs the standard “I’ve Got a Crush” with a breathy voice and oozing sensuality that clearly indicates what the servicemen were all fighting for.
The incredibly talented Tarzetti takes on the first of her two solo roles in the show when she depicts Anna Maria Alberghetti, the Tony Award winner for her role as Lili in the musical Carnival. She sings Alberghetti’s signature song “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” and “Mira,” both from that musical. Tarzetti also portrays Madeline Hartog-Bel, Miss World 1967, who toured with Hope on one of his many Vietnam tours. She also has her turn as Hope’s longtime comic foil, Martha Raye, in her renditions of “Before the Parade Passes By” and “Hello Dolly,” both from Hello, Dolly.
Recent Stage Door Idol winner Margi Cates enjoys her solo turns on the stage as she is introduced as singer Kaye Stevens. Cates seems right at home as she is able to effectively channel Stevens’ brassy delivery.
Emily Gyan (and soon Christine Tonry) portrays Fran Jeffries, a Hollywood singer known best for her bossa nova number in “The Pink Panther” and her movie roles in “Sex and the Single Girl” with Tony Curtis and opposite Elvis Presley in “Harum Scarum.” Jeffries toured with Hope in Southeast Asia during the late 1960s and early 1970s as her signature number of “Show Me the Way To Go Home” has much to indicate the way the war effort was going in Vietnam at the time.
Fresh off her success in Le Petit’s production of Once on This Island and the earlier BB’s Stage Door Canteen Fats Waller musical Ain’t Misbehavin’, Jarrell Hamilton turns in sizzling performances as sexy Barbara McNair in “For Once in My Life’ before depicting Las Vegas showstopper Lola Falana with her glitzy version of “Proud Mary.”
Skylend Roussell, who currently portrays Maxene Andrews in America’s Wartime Sweethearts: A Tribute to the Andrews Sisters, gets her chance to portray two sexy stars of the same era, Joey Heatherton and Ann-Margret. As Heatherton, she not only sings, but gets to acrobatically catapult herself across the stage. As Ann-Margret, she engages in banter before descending from the stage in a haughty version of “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.”
All six ladies perform a rousing version of the Gershwins’ “Strike Up the Band” while performing as The Golddiggers, another Hope-inspired girl group. With superb harmonies, five of them also portray Honey LTD, another girl group which hailed from Detroit with their rendition of “I’m So Glad.” Later, as Ann-Margret, Roussell acts as the lead while the other five acting as Honey LTD combine in “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” the peace movement era song originally penned and sung by Jackie DeShannon.
The ladies also get to show off their dancing skills with select audience members recalling one major dance sensation popular during the 1960s.
The show ends with Johnson on stage recalling Hope’s many Christmas TV specials. He is on stage with Cates as she performs as Kaye Stevens in leading a chorus of a popular Christmas carol, which begs the question: could this be a plug for the next Stage Door Canteen presentation?
That, of course, would be the brand new original Victory Belles Christmas show Reed has authored, which will be starting up its run at the conclusion of the Bob Hope show and running until January. After such a wonderful show as this one, all that could be said is thanks for the memories.
On the Road with Bob Hope & Friends continues on weekends at BB’s Stage Door Canteen at the National World War II Museum, with dinner and a show from 6:00 – 9:00 p.m. (Show tickets sold separately are for 8:00 p.m.). A brunch is served on Sundays from 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. (Show tickets are included with the brunch.) For ticket information click here or call 504-528-1943.