The idea that all blondes are dumb owes its existence to Judy Holliday, an actress in the fifties and sixties who, with her bleached hair, squeaky voice and fluttering eyelashes, created the stereotype we so quickly assign to every woman with golden tresses (be they natural or dyed). But how many people who use the epithet "dumb blonde" know that the original had an IQ of 172, loved to do crossword puzzles and play word games, and yearned to be a writer instead of an actress?
That irony is the premise of Bob Sloan's nifty musical play, Just in Time: The Story of Judy Holliday, receiving a winning and winsome debut production at New Jersey Repertory in Long Branch. Directed with great energy by SuzAnne Barabas and starring four talented actors (two of whom do yeomen's duty playing a myriad of roles—most of them recognizable famous people), Just in Time is a bittersweet comic drama. Bittersweet because Judy Holliday never realized her dreams; comic because, well, she was a funny lady and parts of her life are hilarious; and drama because the Hollywood star system doomed her marriage and stunted her talent by pigeon-holing her as a dumb blonde before she died at the age of 43 from breast cancer.
Born onstage—literally, at the Ziegfeld Theatre where she was delivered by Fanny Brice as her mother attended a performance—Judith Tuvim graduated first in her class from high school at the tender age of 16. When Yale Drama School rejects her because of her youth, Judith takes a number of menial jobs and teams up with Adolph Green and Betty Comden to form "The Three Reviewers," performing original material satirizing show business and Hollywood at the Village Vanguard, accompanied on the piano by Lenny Bernstein (yes, that Lenny Bernstein). Discovered by a talent scout, Judith is whisked to Hollywood, undergoes a name change to Judy Holliday (Tuvim means Holliday in Yiddish) and wins the 1950 Oscar for Best Actress for “Born Yesterday.” Along the way, she is questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee (and black-listed) and wins a Tony Award for Bells Are Ringing (written for her by Comden and Green) before being cut down in her prime. Her career was meteoric and all too short; unfortunately, she is remembered mostly for being a "dumb blonde."
Luckily for us, the very talented Pheonix Vaughn conveys the complicated psyche of Judy Holliday very well. With her adorable dimples, squeaky voice and big blue eyes, it's easy to think this Judy is really dimwitted, but in her character's private moments, Vaughn gives us a glimpse of the real woman inside, the woman who considered acting "a very limited form of expression," a woman who wanted to change the world with her writing. Vaughn is hilarious as she juggles three conversations at the switchboard of the Mercury Theatre (good training for Bells Are Ringing!) and learns the lines at a week's notice for Born Yesterday, when star Jean Arthur leaves the production. Her phone conversations with her son Jonathan are heartbreaking, as is her rendition of the only song in the show that isn't written by Nate Sloan, "The Party's Over," Judy's big hit.
Bonnie Black as Helen Tuvim, Judy's mother, is appropriately controlling and very annoying; she is the quintessential stage mother, but her daughter has a mind of her own, which complicates their relationship. Mark T. Evans provides terrific piano accompaniment as Leonard Bernstein.
Adam Harrington (Adolph Green and 13 other characters) and Catherine LeFrere (Betty Comden and 12 other characters) are absolutely wonderful, morphing from a famous person into an ordinary person and back again in split-second costume (and accent) changes without blinking an eye! They tackle each role with relish! (Below: Harrington as Nick Ray and Pheonix Vaughn as Judy)
Sloan's plot doesn't always proceed chronologically, but "The Three Reviewers" (top photo) act like a Greek chorus, providing bridges between scenes and commenting on the action. It's through their satiric songs that we learn about the havoc Hollywood's contract system wreaked on a young woman's sense of worth, self-respect and family relationships. It is not a pretty picture.
Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story had a brief introductory run last year at the New York Fringe Festival where it received top accolades and played to sold-out audiences. Playwright Bob Sloan's subsequent tweaking includes adding some new scenes and new songs to what one critic called "the best show I saw at the Fringe this year. . .the red carpet event of the Festival."
Judy Holliday may have been a star of a bygone era, but this luminous production makes us realize just what we missed when she left us too young and too soon. Take a ride to Long Branch (go early and walk a bit on the boardwalk) to recapture the magic that is The Judy Holliday Story. New Jersey Rep has a winner on its hands.
Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story will be performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 3 PM; and Sundays at 2 PM through August 14. For information, directions and tickets, call 732.229.3166 or visit www.njrep.org online. On-site parking is free.