To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen

Melinda Schupmann Reviews - Theater

Accomplished singer, songwriter, actor, producer--Kiki Ebsen applies her considerable talents to a tribute to her father, the seven-decade star, Buddy. Using a multi-media approach to highlighting his life and hers (multi-media, special effects Dustin Ebsen), she interweaves musical numbers into a biographical history of her family, her interactions with her father, and personal revelations in a very intimate and relaxed style.

She recalls that her dad arrived in New York with $26.00 in his pocket and built a long career with lots of hard work and perseverance. Joined by his sister in the early days of vaudeville, he garnered a reputation for his dancing and comedic talents. When their act broke up, he continued on with small parts in shows and movies which built over time into the character who could address his talents to both motion pictures and television.

Directed by S. E. Feinberg with an easy flow, Ebsen combines the great American songbook with some choreography (Gregory Gast) in order to round out the biography with more than just facts about her father's career. As she spins out his story, she includes those elements familiar to most of us--The Beverly Hillbillies, Davy Crockett, and his other endeavors in television. When Kiki asks the audience to join her in the theme song from The Hillbillies, it is a testament to its iconic consequence that everyone knew those lyrics and sang along with gusto.

A particularly poignant segment shows Ebsen's dramatic abilities in Breakfast at Tiffanys, in which he played Audrey Hepburn's estranged husband. It was one of the highlights of his career that she found particularly moving.

At show's beginning she opens a trunk filled with memorabilia from her father's career that helps her spin out his life story. Buddy Ebsen was 50 when Kiki was born, and many of the things she shares she only discovered after his death. As the youngest of his children, she pieces together details in order to discover more about the man himself.

The uncredited set, nicely lighted by Ernest McDaniel, creates a picture of things which have meaning in Kiki's life. A saddle sitting on a sawhorse evokes both father and daughter's interest in horses and ranching. A couple of chairs allow for Kiki to chat with the audience as she shares anecdotes that make up the fabric of the memoir. Some memories are lighthearted and others chronicle some unhappy moments for this daughter of a distinguished public figure.

She shares the little known fact that Buddy was cast as the original Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. The makeup that they used to create the character was aluminum powder which nearly killed him, but the studio was not supportive of his medical issues, and the role went to Jack Haley. It was a lifetime regret that he could not take on that character.

Highlights of the biography are the musical numbers delivered by Ebsen. She includes "Moon River," "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and "You Are My Lucky Star," among others, accompanied by Jeff Colella (piano), Kendall Kay (Drums), Kim Richards (woodwinds), and Granville "Danny" Young (bass). Their musicianship is an unexpected bonus in the production.

Another highlight is a sequence in which Kiki imagines a dance with her father (played by  Gast). It is icing on the cake--an evocative moment that must be a pleasure for Kiki Ebsen to include. Overall, it is a charming tribute to the man so familiar to us all yet one with the usual human foibles.

Performances at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Bl West, Los Angeles. Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2. Extended to September 29.