|Sunny Thompson does a dead-on impersonation of Marilyn Monroe's poses and performances.|
Picture-perfect, but skin-deep
STONEHAM - When the sound of Frank Sinatra singing "Fools Rush In" fades and the lights in Stoneham Theatre come up on Sunny Thompson, her resemblance to Marilyn Monroe is breathtaking. As she changes poses to re-create one of Monroe's many famous photo shoots, director Stephanie Shine offers a clue about where "Marilyn: Forever Blonde" is going. For the next two hours, Thompson offers snapshots of the iconic sex symbol, without ever digging deeper than those surface poses.
Writer Greg Thompson falls into the most seductive trap of one-person shows: structuring the play as a memory piece, with "Marilyn" dutifully relaying the events of her life from start to finish. Although the play is billed as "the Marilyn Monroe story in her own words and music," the script feels like a collection of press clippings cut and pasted together. There are the famous quotes: "Red has an interesting effect on people. Women see it, men turn it"; "Joe called and asked me what I had on, and I said, 'The radio.' " But there's hardly any insight into the woman behind them.
Thompson does an impressive job of mimicking Monroe's famous poses, and she speaks with the breathy, childlike voice Monroe projected, at least on camera. The playwright (the actress's husband) has worked in the most famous songs from Monroe's career, and his star has clearly studied all of Monroe's movie appearances, making her performance of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" look remarkably similar to the film. Thompson has a lovely singing voice and has every one of Monroe's moves down pat, but the promise of a glimpse behind the carefully crafted image is never fulfilled. In many ways, the show feels as if it would have been more successful if it had been structured as a concert performance with some backstage access.
"I'm not calculating, or tricky," says Monroe, "but I know what I want." The kind of drive it took for Monroe to transform herself from poor orphan girl to every man's fantasy has a built-in fascination that could make for a great play, but this isn't it. Although Monroe had affairs with several influential men who gave her career a boost, they're simply listed here with brief descriptions of their sexual requirements. There's even a mention of a sexual encounter with Joan Crawford, dropped like a mention of the weather.
Director Shine moves Thompson effortlessly around the all-white set, comfortably anchoring her in a dressing room, bedroom, or living room to develop a particular scene. But by the time we get to her death scene (she drops the phone so we know she's gone), "Marilyn: Forever Blonde" has never given us a sense of Monroe's triumph or disappointment at what it took her to find the fame she craved. At one point, Monroe says her New York acting teacher told her she gives off vibrations. With a character who had such an impact on other human beings, we're missing that interaction onstage. Without it, "Marilyn" feels like we're simply paging through a photo album with helpful captions but no real information.