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Thanks, But No Thanks by Matthew Murray

  • I have a lot of things to be grateful for this Thanksgiving. My family and friends. The presidential election that proved how our country thrives on the peaceful transfer of power. Talkin' Broadway, BroadwayStars, James Marino, and basically the theatre in general.

    And, oh yes: that Rosie O'Donnell's variety show, Rosie Live, will not go to series.

    Go ahead and say it: I must have downed a side of Schadenfreude with my stuffing and mashed potatoes. But compared to the turkey O'Donnell unleashed on NBC viewers last night, it's nothing. The reviews and ratings are in—check this, this, this, and this—and they confirm what tens upon tens of people learned by watching last night: This was a bomb on par with Carrie.

    Unsurprisingly, the problem lay right at the feet of the show's star. O'Donnell wasn't interested in doing a variety show the way Ed Sullivan did: presenting a bunch of immensely talented performers for the enjoyment of TV viewers but staying out of the spotlight herself. She didn't want to merely host, or even just host and participate à la Carol Burnett. She wanted to be the focus of everything. Since she cannot act, sing, or dance, and since her personality is about as soothing as steel wool exfoliation, this created a center leaden enough to drag her really big show right to the bottom of the really big Atlantic Ocean.

    Things went awry immediately. Her opening monologue focused largely on her ample breasts, her ample thighs, and her ample trouble stuffing them into her outfit. Then Liza Minnelli rose through the stage floor—as much a vision in white as O'Donnell was in black—and kibbitzed, lamely, for a few minutes before they began singing Minnelli's showstopper from The Act, "City Lights." Well, Minnelli sang it. O'Donnell was doing her own brand of something else that's been heard in Broadway musicals (Grease, Seussical, Fiddler on the Roof) but isn't technically musical. Backed by black-clad dancers who looked like they'd clawed their way out of Chicago for the night, the entire number seemed to exist only to make everything that was to follow look better.

    It didn't work. Alec Baldwin arriving with a door so special guests could drop by. Clay Aiken trotting over from Spamalot so he and O'Donnell could not joke about being gay. Harry Connick, Jr., in a Santa hat, hawking his new holiday CD, breathfully crooning through "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." O'Donnell herself dressed up as Officer Lockstock from Urinetown and joined by Jen Cody as Little Sally in a scene equal parts obtuse and straw-grabbing, baffling non–New York viewers and annoying theatre lovers who'd hoped to see something from shows that were actually, you know, running.

    Isn't that what most people had hoped for from Rosie Live? There were numbers from Anti Gravity, Alanis Morrisette, and Ne-Yo, and Kathy Griffin got a bizarre, Rosie-rubbing cameo as Nancy Grace. I admit it was hokey, but I kind of liked the finale, with Gloria Estafan, dancing food (although, tsk tsk tsk, a multilayered pumpkin pie?), and a last-second cameo from Rachael Ray—if nothing else, it had character. But where were Sierra Boggess and Norm Lewis? Jeffry Denman and Meredith Patterson? Even Derek Keeling and Ashley Spencer, who were on the NBC reality show that spawned the Grease revival they're now starring in? Yes, they were all doing their shows, but aren't these exactly the kind of performers a supposed Broadway booster would go after?

    Of course, too many actual triple-threats would make O'Donnell look bad. Her Broadway shtick has long been based on her utter lack of ability: "Look, I can't do anything, but I'm up here onstage! Isn't this swell?" Perhaps it is—for her. But supporting Broadway means supporting the people and the shows that really make it work, not flattening them like an out-of-control bulldozer. These days, O'Donnell cares more about promoting herself. She was once a very funny stand-up comedienne, her harsh observations and wry delivery a perfect match for her vague, urban personality. But she's not remotely a master showwoman—Minnelli, on her worst day sounds bounds better than O'Donnell on her best. And while Officer Lockstock may have been funny in Urinetown he's not when O'Donnell resurrects him for an in-joke that was ebbing in popularity in 2003. O'Donnell is only a star when she's being herself, which would never fly in an 8:00 PM time slot.

    For me, the evening's defining moment was Jane Krakowski. The second guest to drop by Baldwin's door (Conan O'Brien was the first, and got a pie in the face for his trouble), she was tasked with a hopeless recitation of the freebies advertisers had donated to audience members. But as it was done to the tune of Gypsy's "You Gotta Get a Gimmick," it at least it allowed Krakowski to effervesce in a mock striptease, that showed off her voice (and her legs) to spectacular advantage. The number wrapped up with Krakowski completely unwrapping, with O'Donnell leaping in front of her and screaming "This is a family show!" Luckily for O'Donnell, her own breast talk was not off-limits.

    Family, like fame and Broadway, are just convenient tools O'Donnell can use to put herself at the center of any spotlight. I'm sure she had a wonderful time last night; that no one else did probably doesn't matter to her. So I don't feel that guilty about dancing on Rosie Live's grave—after all, O'Donnell dug it herself. O'Donnell may lack the skills needed to join a chorus line, but at ruining shows she's one singular sensation.

    Why are you looking all the way down here?
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