Even if you’re an ardent theater fan, chances are you’ve never heard of Greta Gustafsson. But Greta Garbo? Ahhh, that’s a different story. Just mention the phrase, “I vant to be alone,” and instant recognition sets in.
Never mind that the majority of people have never seen a silent movie. Forget that few fans today have laid eyes on the sultry Swedish actress who took “the talkies” by storm. The simple fact is this: Although Garbo retired in 1940 and was a recluse until her death, she lives on as a Hollywood legend.
Enter famous songwriter Bud-
dy Kaye, who was fascinated by the mystique of this foreign femme fatale. He was working on a musical about Garbo when he died. His son Richard found Kaye’s unfinished book and lyrics, and decided to complete them as a tribute to his father.
After eight years of relentless endeavor (professional advice, research with Garbo’s relatives, dramatic readings, myriad rewrites and revisions), “When Garbo Talks!” opened last weekend at International City Theatre.
Thanks to additional material by Richard Kaye, music by Mort Garson, producer Shashin Desai and director Jules Aaron (all prime movers in the project), Buddy Kaye’s last work is finally on stage.
“When Garbo Talks” is a familiar story that’s been told over and over again. Whether on stage or in film, audiences have long been responsive to its theme: a beautiful young woman and her struggle for fame and fortune in spite of obstacles that appear in her path.
In this case, Greta Gustafsson is a poor, 17-year-old girl who’s determined to be an actress. Signe, her beloved acting coach, arranges for her to meet Mauritz Stiller, the famous director of Sweden’s Royal Academy. Sensing Greta’s potential, Stiller takes her under his wing and changes her name to Garbo.
Before long, she’s cast in a Swedish drama that’s seen by Louis B. Mayer, who flies in from Hollywood to meet her in person. Then, faster-than-the-speed-of-lightning, the actress and director Stiller are signed to a three-year contract.
And, true to the format of this musical genre, trouble immediately starts brewing. Not to worry. Since Aaron specializes in musical theater, if anyone can make the plot sizzle he can. And he does. Together with Brent Crayon, who conducts from his on-stage piano, the best is brought out of Kaye’s lyrics and Garson’s score.
It takes a first-rate cast to deliver derivative material and make it zing. ICT has it. Jessica Burrows was born to play Garbo. With her tall reed-thin body and mesmerizing voice, Burrows embodies the part as her own (dressed in Kim DeShazo’s knock-out costumes).
Also excellent are Michael Stone Forrest as Stiller (her beloved director), Christopher Carothers as actor John Gilbert (famous 1920s heart-throb), and Alexandra Ackerman as Signe (her ever-loyal drama coach). All of them play pivotal roles in Garbo’s life.
You can’t have a musical without comic relief, and “Garbo” has a troika. Matthew Hennerson is a riot as Louis B. Mayer, the slapstick, ever-scheming president of MGM. Backed up by Nick Rogers as his hilarious sidekick, and Teya Patt as his sniggering secretary, they sing and dance up a storm (delightful choreography by Kay Cole).
Throw in Scott Kruse (who plays multiple parts); put everyone on Stephen Gifford’s functional set under Debra Lockwood’s lighting; then sit back and watch the 24-year-old star take the world by storm when she boldly challenges MGM.
Hearts were broken when Garbo retreated into seclusion, but she remains a legend in the ongoing saga of motion pictures.
“When Garbo Talks!” continues Friday through Sunday through Nov. 7 at the Center Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd. Call 436-4610 or go to www.InternationalCityTheatre.org for ticket information.