The last time this newspaper reviewed Tony Braithwaite's one-man show
Look Mom, I'm Swell
, now at Ambler's Act II Playhouse, things weren't quite so peachy-keen. That review described the piece, which discusses Braithwaite's upbringing and his mother's life and death, as fine for a family gathering, but it asserted that asking strangers to pay for the privilege of watching Braithwaite stroll down memory lane was downright brazen.
Well, someone backstage must have agreed, because after a bit of retooling, the show is starting to feel more like the privilege it ought to be. Though Braithwaite's script could still use a tweak or two, this peek behind the curtain offers a disarming look at what made one of Philadelphia's best-loved performers the swell fellow he is today.
Braithwaite's love letter to his mother, who died of cancer in 2005, is equally a love letter to the theater. The two are inextricably enmeshed for him, in a mom who combined the most "swelegant" facets of "Judy Garland, Ethel Merman and Angela Lansbury," and the artistic discipline that allowed the friendless, sports-averse, acne-pocked "teenage 45-year-old" to come into his own.
With his parents' - but especially his musical-loving mother's - enthusiastic support, Braithwaite accomplished some impressive dramatic feats. Along his steady climb he performed regularly at the New York comedy club The Improv at age 13, won a national Shakespeare monologue competition, and for a spell became Disney honcho Michael Eisner's sullen protegé.
The stories are interesting because Braithwaite's life is interesting, but the show is at its best when threaded through with Braithwaite's musical numbers (piano accompaniment by Gina Giachero) and whiplash impressions, which serve to break up his monologue into digestible and not quite so self-indulgent chunks.
Though he sings "You must love me, love, be my greatest fan/ because I'm a needy, neurotic little man," he only comes off that way once, when reciting a Shakespeare monologue that grinds the production to a pretentious halt. The audience already knows Braithwaite is capable of holding down a monologue; after all, that's what he's been doing all along. Toss in another razzle-dazzle song instead and the problem will be solved.
And while his characterization of Eisner and family is amusing, without some admission of the role Braithwaite himself played in accepting considerable assistance from a man whose Hollywood vapidity he clearly disdained, he sounds like an ungrateful suck-up. Not, I'm guessing, the impression he was going for.
Still, as the man says, "All's swell that ends swell," and the show's endearing qualities definitely outweigh its negatives. Sally Braithwaite's affection for the stage was the legacy she left her son, and for that he can't thank her enough. I imagine plenty of mothers in the audience wouldn't sneeze at a show of gratitude like this one.
Through Dec. 14 at Act II Playhouse, 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler. Tickets: $25-$30. Information: 215-654-0200 or