Taking her comic novel Tickled Pink as inspiration, Las Vegas headliner Rita Rudner and husband Martin Bergman have penned a two-act comedy not coincidentally titled Tickled Pink—and the results now onstage at the Laguna Playhouse are likely to tickle the fancy of anyone in the mood for a couple hours of laughs … along with a well-earned tear or two thrown in for good measure.

 Directed with panache by Bergman and starring a cast of thirteen of L.A.’s best comedic actors (including Rudner herself in a trio of roles), Tickled Pink tells the tale of a certain Mindy Solomon (Emma Fassler)—born and raised like Rudman in Florida by a widowed dad (Floyd VanBuskirk)—who heads off to the Big Apple to become a professional dancer.

It doesn’t take long for Mindy to find herself featured in a Broadway show, and if this sounds a bit too Peggy Sawyer to be true, Rudner herself appeared in four Broadway musicals (Promises, Promises, Follies, The Magic Show, and Mack & Mabel) over a period of several years in the early ‘70s before deciding that “there were not a lot of female comediennes, but there were a lot of female dancers,” and segueing into standup.

Mindy’s switch from hoofer to jokester happens a bit faster than Rudner’s (and a decade later), but the results are similar. Before long, Mindy has attracted enough attention to get booked on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman.

 Along the way, Mindy becomes best friends with a gorgeous blonde model named Ursula Duran (Annie Abrams), and acquires a good-natured boyfriend (Michael Kirby) who writes a TV pilot so close to Mindy’s life, it’s even got her name as its title.

Fate determines, however, that who should show up to audition for “Mindy” but Ursula, and despite being about as similar to Mindy as cherries jubilee is to Cherry Garcia … Well, three guesses as to who doesn’t get the part.

And that’s only a smattering of what happens in Act One, with even more comic plot twists and turns in store in Act Two.

With its baker’s dozen actors playing a grand total of thirty-six roles over the course of thirty-eight scenes (only Fassler and Abrams essay a single role each), Tickled Pink is ambitious indeed—but it works, thanks to a tiptop cast, Bergman’s lively direction, and Rudner and Bergman’s clever script, one which compacts her three hundred plus-page novel into a highly entertaining two-and-a-quarter hour play.

 Following her professional debut in the La Mirada Theatre production of Steel Magnolias and a title role in L.A. Theatre Ensemble’s Trog And Clay: An Imagined History Of The Electric Chair, Fassler now gets the kind of star vehicle that ought to put the delightfully quirky young UCLA grad on the Southern California theater map. Reminiscent of a young Carol Kane, Fassler makes for an utterly endearing Mindy, in addition to proving herself quite the expert at stand-up, nailing each and every one of Mindy’s one-liners to give Rudner a run for her money.

A terrific Abrams gives luscious Ursula warmth, depth, and a likeability that keeps her from becoming the villainess even when her beauty proves a roadblock to Mindy’s prime-time success. (It’s only too bad Rudner’s script doesn’t offer Abrams a chance to show off the heavenly soprano L.A. audiences have heard in Great Expectations and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum).

 Rudner is a hoot in several roles, most notably as Mindy’s imperious Teutonic mother and as a Broadway diva with a heart of gold.

Rudner and Bergman’s script keeps the entire cast on their comedic toes throughout, that is when they’re not executing one fast costume change after another.

 Betsy Reisz and Kirby are terrific as (among other characters) Mindy’s second-best friend and her aforementioned on-again, off-again boyfriend. Impro Theatre’s Brian Lohmann, Nick Massouh, and Buskirk prove their versatility (and their ability to work from a script rather than inventing one nightly) in a variety of supporting roles. Other standout turns are given by Eileen Galindo, hilarious in a fat suit as one of Mindy’s comedian friends; Greg Bryan as a sad-sack standup who finally gets enough laughs to graduate from Open Mike night; and Brett Glazer as a flamboyant dancer who adds a poignant touch-of-‘80s reality to the evening’s laughs. Eric Curtis Johnson and Robert Yacko complete the cast in couldn’t-be-better fashion.

Costume designer Dwight Richard Odle deserves major kudos for creating dozens upon dozens of outfits which clue us in to who’s who even before their wearers have uttered a syllable, and the uncredited wigs are quite fabulous as well. Sound designer Corinne Carrillo connects scenes with a medley of song-hits by the likes of Blondie, Culture Club, and Irene Cara—a just-right soundtrack to transport us back in time to the ‘80s.

In only one area does this World Premiere production fall short, and that is in its scenic and lighting designs. While it’s entirely understandable for pennies to be pinched in order to pay a cast of thirteen their Equity-mandated salaries (and Thank You, Laguna Playhouse, for giving so many performers roles in these tight economic times), it must be said that with the exception of Odle’s costumes, Tickled Pink looks cheap. D. Martyn Bookwalter’s set consists of sliding panels that serve as screens for projected snapshots of various L.A. and New York locales. Furniture gets pushed on and off the otherwise bare black, tape-marked stage by actors and (more awkwardly) by headphone/mike-wearing stage hands. Though Bookwalter’s lighting design does allow us to see the actors on the stage, in so doing it drowns out media designer David Mickey’s projections.

Wally Zieglar is casting director, Vernon Willet production stage manager, and Jennifer Sherman assistant production stage manager.

Like a novel which keeps you turning page after page to find out what’s coming next, Tickled Pink turns out to be one “page-turner” of a play, hardly surprising when you consider its literary source. If you’re anything like this reviewer, you’ll enjoy seeing those pages turned as much as I did.

The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

–Steven Stanley
May 1, 2012
Photos: Ed Krieger

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