[Full disclosure: I have worked on stage with Mr. Haller in the past.]
In fact, Ken Haller’s “The TV Show” is a very clever idea smartly executed. Rather than simply throwing together a program of TV themes peppered with “remember when” nostalgia, Mr. Haller and his director Tim Schall have assembled a highly personal journey seen in the flickering blue light of the “big, enormous twelve inch screen” that was the centerpiece of so many childhood living rooms for those of us Of a Certain Age. In “The TV Show”, nostalgia is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.
So, for example, Mr. Haller uses a set of theme songs from shows about characters with special powers (“I Dream of Jeanie,” “Bewitched,” “My Favorite Martian”) to reflect on how those shows resonated with his growing awareness, rushing towards puberty, of his gay sexuality. “Bein’ Green” becomes a meditation on being different and accepting it while the only non-TV song in the show —“Somewhere That’s Green” from “Little Shop of Horrors”—leads into reminiscences of growing up in suburban Hicksville on Long Island. And “Let Me Be Your Star” (from “Smash”) underscores a touching anecdote about how his mother, after seeing a video of his Sondheim show, turned to him and said “you really are a star!”
That’s not to say “The TV Show” is all touchy-feely stuff. Unlike some performers, Mr. Haller is careful not to push the confessional aspect of cabaret too far. Most of the evening is a tremendously entertaining and often extremely funny romp through TV land.
There’s a medley of Barry Manilow’s commercial jingles, for example (demonstrating his early talent for writing a tune with a great hook) and a reenactment of a particularly hallucinatory segment from “Gilligan’s Island” in which the castaways put on a musical version of “Hamlet” using tunes from classic operas. Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Mr. Haller’s Ginger as Ophelia. And, of course, there’s my own favorite: “Yakko’s World” (from “Anmaniacs”), which involves rattling off all the nations of the world to the tune of “The Mexican Hat Dance”. No human could possibly memorize that, of course, so Mr. Haller makes a very funny bit out of reading the lyrics off 3X5 cards and tossing them around the stage a la Rip Taylor.
Songs with big buckets of words, in fact, were the source of the only rough spots on opening night, as Mr. Haller ran into some difficulty with the lyrics for the “Bonanza” theme and Noel Coward’s “Come to the Supermarket (in Old Peking),” a particularly thorny “list” song from the 1958 TV special “Aladdin”. Mr. Haller, to his credit, handled those minor missteps with the grace of a true professional.
Fans of Mr. Haller’s Sondheim show, by the way, will be happy to learn that Mr. Sondheim is not absent from the evening. He’s represented by “Take Me to the World” (from “Evening Primrose,” the TV special that also gave us the lovely “I Remember”), which music director Al Fischer has combined in a charming medley with Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Ten Minutes Ago” (from “Cinderella”).
Speaking of Mr. Fischer, his voice and piano are so much a part of “The TV Show” that it’s almost a duet act. He and Mr. Haller clearly have a solid working relationship that results in an easy camaraderie on stage. Mr. Schall’s work is visible throughout the evening as well in the logical flow and pacing as well as in the canny use of the Kranzberg’s limited playing space.