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Short sends in his clowns

Times Staff Writer

Of all the characters Martin Short plays, the most hilarious just may be Martin Short himself.

Sure, Ed Grimley, with his cockeyed grace and stick-'em-up cowlick, has his rascal charms. And gluttonous talk-show host Jiminy Glick never fails to get a rise with his wily windiness. But Short has something that none of his nutty creations can touch: the bound-to-be-disappointed optimism that his showbiz mega-dream is about to come true.

In “Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me,” the cutesy variety show now at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway, our quite possibly helium-high host pretends we’ve all drawn nigh to hear the story of his roller-coaster ride to mid-level Hollywood stardom -- and his ardent prayer that any minute he’s going to explode to the next level.

With a book by Sherman and Daniel Goldfarb, the piece features new songs by “Hairspray” duo Marc Shaiman (who provides onstage accompaniment) and Scott Wittman (who also directs), a top-notch supporting cast (deservedly referred to in the Playbill as “Comedy All Stars”) and a lot of eager-to-please gags that have a hard time sustaining their initial amusement.

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That Short’s latest achieves only mixed results shouldn’t be held against him, though. He’s one of the nimblest clowns around, a Canadian kook whose surface blandness throws into relief his crackpot irreverence. Even when he’s sinking, he somehow manages to swim his way into our goofy good graces.

TV has been very, very good to Short. The menagerie of weirdos he fathered on “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live” has had impressive longevity, and it’s hard not to feel grateful when one always seems ready to rescue you from cable boredom.

Though he already has a Tony on his resume for his performance in the revival of “Little Me,” Short has yet to find a writer who can do for him what Jane Wagner did for Lily Tomlin in “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”: give him a Broadway show worthy of his morphing comic gifts.

“Fame Becomes Me” takes inspiration from the Great White Way’s recent fascination with the stage memoir, a genre that spans from the highs of Elaine Stritch rasping about her passionate love affair and inevitable breakup with the bottle to the lows of Suzanne Somers trying to turn her career into an inspiring (and more profitable) survival saga.

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Short goes another route with the form: He straightforwardly lies. Unabashedly concocting stories about his cruel Ontario upbringing, he spins a musical-comedy fantasia about his legacy as a would-be gypsy dancer who spirals into a Studio 54 drug haze with Liza and Andy only to resurrect himself the glamorous way: a luxurious stint in five-star rehab.

Of course, there are a few more furtive reasons for this Broadway tell-all, which Short can’t resist confessing. “I’ve reached the point in my career where no one would want to work with me,” he says with an ecstatic sneer.

As one chorus number jokingly spells out, when a Hollywood star appears on Broadway, it typically means his or her last film just flopped. Short acknowledges that had he saved his money, he probably wouldn’t be treading the boards today. But he also comes clean about his love of live performance, comparing the reaction of an audience to “full-grade pharmaceutical morphine” -- only “more judgmental.”

The funniest moments show him in the full sway of his addiction. Bunkered in his bedroom as an adolescent, he enacts imaginary interviews with famous celebrities, including a spasmodically funny plate-spinning Katharine Hepburn. He auditions for a lecherous (though not-so-impressed) Tommy Tune (Brooks Ashmanskas on stilts) and tries ineptly to keep up with Bob Fosse’s chain-smoking moves.

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One clunky bit has him starring in an all-nude off-off-Broadway hippie Jesus musical. Short claims to have learned the art of “always leaving them wanting less” from Mandy Patinkin, and this scene proves it.

But even when the shtick flags, he’s got plenty of freshly minted Mel Gibson zingers up his sleeve to keep you from mentally checking out. And his ace ensemble turns out to be just as adept at celebrity skewering -- practiced in the icon-smashing spirit of those whose greatest wish is to one day be worshiped as comedy gods.


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