The death of actress Marilyn Monroe in 1962, at the age of 36, sent shock waves throughout the world. Monroe had struggled for recognition as a serious actress in her life, as opposed to being perceived as a "dumb blond," the kind of role in which she was frequently cast. Perhaps ironically, Monroe's fame as an actress has continued to grow since her death, labeled a "probable suicide" by an incomplete coroner's report.
Monroe attended the famed Actors' Studio in Manhattan, where its director, Lee Strasburg, said that she and Marlon Brando were the two best actors he had ever seen. Joshua Logan, who directed her in Bus Stop, said "I found Marilyn to be one of the great talents of all time." A great actor makes the acting invisible, and Monroe had that talent.
Sunny Thompson portrays Monroe in Marilyn Forever Blonde, and has the courage of a lioness in tackling the impersonation of a luminous star, about whom everyone is likely to already have a firm opinion.
The stage at the Wortham Theater is broad, but is filled with the commanding stage presence of Sunny Thompson, who first appears clad in a white satin sheet as Monroe is being photographed in 1962, shortly before her death. The opening is brilliant, as Monroe's ability to deliberately project charisma is demonstrated. Thompson is beautiful, and very blond indeed, but even more importantly, she has the ability to exude an inner light, as did Monroe, who could turn it on or off at will.
The work is essentially a biopic, written by Greg Thompson, husband to Sunny, and it covers Monroe's career, and marriages, in close to chronological order, except for the opening scene. A large screen upstage, used intermittently, shows the iconic images of husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, and others such as Yves Montand, Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, as they enter her life.
The very attractive all-white set, by Jason Phillips, has a translucent changing screen at stage right, a bar at upstage left, a chair and phone at downstage left, and a bed on a raised platform upstage center, and they work very well indeed. There is an added bathtub scene,with a surprise twist at the end, which I will keep a surprise, except to say that it provides a chance for Thompson to demonstrate perfect deadpan comic timing.
Despite its necessarily dark ending, the play is amazingly light-hearted. Monroe was very funny, and Thompson has nailed her sense of irony and cheerful spirit. The tone is that of a romantic comedy, and we are delighted to join Monroe on her epic journey, from a one-line role saying "Hello" to becoming a world-famous superstar. Stephanie Shine, Artistic Director of the Seattle Shakespeare Company, directed the play and the pace is fluid, charming, and altogether persuasively credible - there is no posing except when Monroe deliberately does so for the flashbulbs.
There are sixteen songs, some just snatches that reference the film which used them, and Thompson handles these well, and has memorized the gestures that Monroe used, to cement these memories. The close-fitting costumes by Mimi Countryman and Alice Worthy are very attractive, and show off Thompson's voluptuous hourglass figure.
For those familiar with Monroe's career, there may be no surprises here, but for others it is enormously helpful to see, in close to its entirety, the life saga of such an unique individual. No attempt is made to sensationalize the material, and indeed there is no need, as the dramatic peaks speak for themselves.
We come away from the theater, and the well-merited standing ovation, delighted to have spent an evening with this remarkable woman, whom the world has come to love, cherish, and even to adore, as she has evolved from actress to goddess, in our collective imagination.
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Houston owes a debt of gratitude to the Brilliant Lecture Series, for bringing this biopic to Houston, to Greg Thompson for writing it, to Stephanie Shine for directing it, and most of all to Sunny Thompson for finding the genius that was Monroe, and bringing her own luminous personality and inner light to this demanding role.
A perfect trifecta of dramatic material, insightful direction and consummate acting brings an iconic film actress to vibrant life, filling the stage with wit, humor, poignance and a heart-breaking ending, and making for must-see theater.
Marilyn Forever Blonde: The Marilyn Monroe Story In Her Own Words and Music continues on August 22 and 23 at 8 p.m. at the Wortham Center, 501 Texas, 832-487-7041, brilliantlectures.org.