Judge Jonathan Weiss makes whoopee with Whoopi. Oh, like you didn't see that joke coming!
"Another bride, another June. Another sunny honeymoon. Another season, another reason…for makin' whoopee."—Gus Kahn (1930)
Twenty years ago, if someone mentioned the name "Whoopi Goldberg," most of us would have pictured an old lady with a penchant for matzo balls. Nobody would have envisioned dreadlocks. And then sometime during 1984, that very name hit the marquee on Broadway, and even though people didn't know a thing about her, they came to see what all the fuss was about—and what they saw was a groundbreaking performance. Ironically, they never actually got to know Whoopi Goldberg the person; they got to know four distinct, completely fleshed out and believable characters telling stories about life from their perspective. This show heralded in the birth of a distinct talent.
Well, a lot has certainly happened in twenty years. Whoopi Goldberg is now a globally recognized name—with a face to match. It's not like she hasn't been busy that's for sure. In 1985, she made her much heralded big screen debut as Celie in The Color Purple. She hosted Comic Relief with buddies Billy Crystal and Robin Williams to help the homeless and won an Oscar for her role in Ghost. She had success as lounge singer Deloris Van Cartier in two Sister Act movies and starred in a whole slew of stinkers (Jumping Jack Flash, Burglar, Fatal Beauty, and Theodore Rex just to name a few). She was the first female to host the Academy Awards. She visited the future as Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation, lent her voice to Disney's incredibly successful Lion King, took over Paul Lynde's gig as centre square on Hollywood Squares, and had her own self-titled television series. You could go on and on.
Now after two decades away from the footlights, the Whoop has returned with Whoopi: Back to Broadway (The 20th Anniversary Show), where she revisits some old characters and introduces a new one. Only this time everybody thinks they know exactly who she is. Whether that's true remains to be seen.
Facts of the Case
Whoopi Goldberg talks about politics, family, relationships, and life in general from the perspective of different, fully realized characters.
Lo and behold, HBO has actually included an extra of serious substance to Whoopi Goldberg: Back to Broadway (The 20th Anniversary Show). Included with the main attraction is a completely separate disc featuring Whoopi Goldberg: Direct from Broadway, her 1985 landmark performance from where the main feature gets its '20th Anniversary' designation. Where this surprising addition becomes particularly helpful is in giving the main feature a direct point of reference. It's also a great place to start this review.
Whoopi Goldberg: Direct from Broadway begins with Whoopi entering the Broadway theatre in which she is about to put on her show. As she walks down a backstage hallway she checks in on the performers who are about to walk on stage. We're introduced to the Surfer Girl, the Jamaican, the woman with disabilities, the kid, and Fontaine the junkie; each played by Ms. Goldberg using nothing more than body language, a headband, a knitted cap, and a head-dress comprised of a white shirt.
Here's what you need to understand. In 1984, you know nothing about Whoopi Goldberg. You don't know who she is or what she does. But after watching this disc what you do know is that she doesn't do stand-up comedy. Whoopi Goldberg is a monologist in the tradition of say, Lily Tomlin; a creator of characters and scenarios in which she gets to reflect upon the human condition. There are moments of humour to be sure, but more than anything, after the performance one is left with a deeper understanding of humanity as a whole.
Through Fontaine, we rethink a social stereotype and experience the kind of personal growth that only a visit to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam could inspire.
Through the surfer girl we experience the loneliness and consequences of two life-changing decisions.
Through the little girl we witness and feel compassionate towards a changing attitude towards the self.
Through the Jamaican we're whisked off on a culture-hopping adventure.
And through the disabled lady we reflect on our own petty bigotries over people physically different than ourselves and experience the power of love.
The footage is grainy. The audio is in stereo. And the performance is breathtaking. Never once does Whoopi break character and we are completely absorbed by the stories she tells.
Now jump ahead twenty years and sit back and watch Whoopi Goldberg: Back to Broadway (The 20th Anniversary Show) . We're in the new millennium and we all know who Whoopi Goldberg is. She's the spokeswoman for SlimFast who was released from her contract for allegedly saying inappropriate things about the president during these difficult times. She's the woman who wrote comedic material that Ted Danson, a former boyfriend, used to roast her at the Friar's Club—oh and he was also in blackface at the time. And of course, she's starred in numerous movies both good and bad, appeared on television as a star, guest star, talk show host and game show celebrity. Walking into the theatre one assumes they know exactly what they're going to see—Whoopi doing Whoopi. But that's not the point of this show. If you want that, turn on the TV. Whoopi Goldberg: Back to Broadway (The 20th Anniversary Show) is a throwback to her roots as a monologist and social satirist. Now obviously a lot of time has passed since her Broadway debut twenty years ago but one seriously hard fact soon becomes crystal clear—the lady's still got her chops.
Whoopi Goldberg: Back to Broadway (The 20th Anniversary Show) starts exactly the same way that Whoopi Goldberg: Direct from Broadway did—with Fontaine shuffling onstage completely oblivious to the crowd. Her gait is a little slower, her voice a little lower and maybe, just maybe, her head scarf is a little fancier, but it is unmistakably Fontaine singing "around the world in 18 mother%$&!ng days."
At this point, worry sets in that this is going to be an exact replay of the 1985 show—but that fades as soon as Fontaine starts talking. In fact, it appears a lot has changed since the first show. Where once we were drawn into monologues we are now being confronted head-on in a more traditional stand-up style—though always in character. Topics too have been brought up-to-date into the realm of politics and the war on terror. Fontaine talks about 9/11, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and, of course, the Bush administration. She also references her trip twenty years earlier to Amsterdam and her visit to the Anne Frank House. Only this time she uses it to compare what happened in cities across Europe during World War II (dragging people out of the house for speaking out against the government, for religious preferences, or for sexual orientation) as a metaphor for the prevalent feelings going on in America today.
After Fontaine, we're introduced to Lorleen, a Southern lady who talks about menopause, erectile dysfunction, differences in being a woman then and now, waxing, family dynamics, violence, and even suicide. Lorleen is probably the least realized character of Whoopi's extensive repertoire in that she feels more like an extension of Whoopi the person than any of the other performers we've met to date. Again, the monologue has shifted to the stand-up format where instead of being taken through an experience from a specific perspective Lorleen brings up different topics and talks to them as a comedian would. It's only near the end of Lorleen's time with us that she shifts again into storyteller mold—and it's truthful, raw and mesmerizing.
Finally, we're reintroduced to the disabled lady. Though some of the specifics may have changed, this is basically a direct lift from her initial offering twenty years earlier—which is not to say it's bad. The disabled lady monologue is incredibly poignant and heart-felt, only it would have been nice to have evolved the character past her initial introduction all those years ago. In both shows she's getting married in two weeks to a very special, funny man. It would have been nice to see how their relationship was progressing. Even without watching the previous performance, the disabled lady could probably have taken us through the courtship stage quick enough to explore new ground. It's a shame she didn't because this is one lady you really want to learn more about.
The video and sound for Whoopi Goldberg: Back to Broadway (The 20th Anniversary Show) is much better than the original broadcast (as it rightly should be). It's also filmed in anamorphic widescreen. Surprisingly HBO also threw in a couple more extras too—nothing to cheer about mind you—but if you have five and a half minutes, "Whoopi in the Can" is worth a watch.
Even though comparing Whoopi Goldberg: Back to Broadway (The 20th Anniversary Show) with the 1985 show, Whoopi Goldberg: Direct from Broadway seems only natural, that doesn't mean that it's right to do so—even if they do come in the same package. It would be like comparing apples to, okay maybe not oranges exactly, but at least another kind of apple.
Look at it this way: are you the same person you were twenty years ago? How about five? Hopefully not. If you're not evolving, expanding your horizons, gaining new experiences and learning new truths, then you're standing still and Whoopi Goldberg is one woman who has definitely not been standing still.
The biggest difference between the two shows is subject matter and format. By speaking on subjects tied to such a recent timeline like Bush's war on terror, Whoopi Goldberg: Back to Broadway (The 20th Anniversary Show) has the potential to date itself a lot faster than its predecessor. Also, the stand-up format takes a much more confrontational approach than the monologue. Right or wrong, both were artistic choices—made with integrity by an artist with a unique talent and distinct point-of view. The only think you can be sure of is that if you came in thinking you knew exactly who Whoopi Goldberg was, you leave realizing you haven't even scratched the surface.
As Fontaine might say: "Guilty? We're all mother%$&!ng guilty of something man."
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Scales of Justice
• Bonus DVD: "Whoopi Goldberg: Direct From Broadway"
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