Although I was too young to appreciate him while he was on the air, I’ve since held a special admiration for Johnny Carson. For the 30 years he hosted “The Tonight Show“, he brought a unique brand of humor and class to late night programming. And when Carson stepped off the stage in 1992, unlike some other entertainers (and professional athletes), he remained in retirement and disappeared from the radar completely, leaving his extraordinary legacy unblemished. Hopefully, Tony Braithwaite won’t be walking away quite yet.
HEEERE’S TONY, now running at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, brings the concept of “The Tonight Show” and similar late night television programming to the theatre. It’s a risky concept in many respects. You need a charismatic and charming host capable of thinking on his feet, a talented writing staff to provide fresh material, and an audience willing to try something outside the box (and not find it self-indulgent).
Act II took the gamble, and it’s paid off in spades. I laughed more during HEEERE’S TONY’s relatively short runtime then I did in the last five comedies I’ve seen combined. Three time Barrymore winner Tony Braithwaite is the host, and puts out his A-game. While he plays homage to a couple popular segments from other late programming (such as Letterman’s “top ten list” and Carson’s “Carnac the Magnificent“), make no mistake- this is not a parody of late night talk shows; it’s its own beast entirely. Braithwaite’s quick off-the-cuff banter makes him instantly endearing, and his aptitude with improv and quick retort is remarkable. He captures the audience from the outset and never lets go.
The production follows a similar formula of many late night talk shows. It starts with an extended monologue with jokes referencing pop culture and current events. (The added benefit of this production is that it also allows jabs concerning local issues.) Braithwaite nails the monologue, feeding off a very receptive audience. Next, there’s a segment with Braithwaite at his “desk” where he reads from his laptop some hilarious Facebook and Twitter “status updates“ of various people-of-interest. (Some of the credit for these bits goes to head writer, Will Dennis.)
And then, of course, there are the special guests. Braithwaite invites a different guest for each performance. The night I attended he competed head-to-head against three teenage prodigies of Wissahickon High School’s debate team (who’ve qualified for the state semifinals- way to go, guys!) It was a riot, and you can guess who came out on top. Local musical theatre professional Jeff Coon shared his impressive vocal talents with renditions of two upbeat show tunes. But each performance is different, so check Act II’s website to see who’s coming when.
Supporting Braithwaite are Howie Brown in the announcer/sidekick role and Alex Bechtel on the piano. Both are engaging and lend levity when needed. One thing I expected but never occurred was more banter between Braithwaite and Brown, a la Conan and Andy Richter. But including such a segment might have made the show run too long. As it presently stands, the production runs the just the right length, packing the maximum amount of laughs into a program that needs (and has) no slow points.
HEEERE’S TONY is a one-of-a-kind experience. If you enjoy late night talk shows, GO. If you used to enjoy late night talk shows but have since become tired of celebrity plugs taking precedent over comedy, GO. But make reservations; Act II is an intimate 130 seat theatre, and if you don’t see it there, you very well may not get another chance.
Conceived and performed by Tony Braithwaite
February 2 – 20, 2011
Act II Playhouse
56 E. Butler Avenue
Ambler, PA 19002