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Rooks is George Burns

“Say Goodnight Gracie” captivating

Be prepared to fall in love all over again with vaudeville, radio, film and TV star George Burns, as portrayed by Joel Rooks in the Peterborough Players’ production of “Say Goodnight Gracie” by Rupert Holmes.

Rooks, the Broadway understudy who took up the role in a national tour of the hit play’s revival, seems to know Burns like the back of his hand. Rooks has the look, the shuffle-walk, the accent, the gruff voice of a cigar smoker. His transformation is uncanny, so much so that by the end of the play one forgets he’s playing a role. It’s as if he’s channeling George Burns.

Burns, born in 1896 in New York’s Lower East Side, was like a phoenix rising from the ashes of each dying art platform. First it was vaudeville, then radio, but the comedic straight man’s material was destined for talking picture shows and TV, too. Each generation growing up in the 20th century had their chance to get to know and love Burns, and in “Say Goodnight Gracie” a new generation is getting the opportunity.

With multimedia projected on a screen behind him, Rooks, playing Burns, recounts his life to the audience. He’s on the verge of crossing over into the afterlife at age 100, and now he’s giving the performance of his life in a spiritual catharsis he hopes will bring him one step closer to his late wife, show business legend Gracie Allen.

Burns, though, doesn’t suddenly turn religious on stage. He’s still the cigar-smoking, sweet-talking ladies’ man who looks his audience in the eye, with a twinkle in his own, and says his punch line without breaking character. He was straight man to Gracie Allen’s squeaky, ditsy funny girl.

Burns’ origins, love affair with Allen and rise to stardom are the central themes of the play. Theatergoers are treated to rare audio, film and TV clips of the comedic duo, and Rooks, channeling Burns, breaks out in sweet snippets of song and dance throughout.

The challenge with this play is the technology that drives the progression of Burns’ story; if all the equipment stays in working order, the play’s momentum won’t be interrupted. But if there is a glitch, as there was dress rehearsal night Tuesday, Rooks won’t bat an eyelash. The consummate stage performer, he’ll keep right on talking in Burns-style entertainment, keeping the audience laughing and hanging on his very move, his every word.

As with Burns, the surprise that comes in not knowing exactly what he’ll say or do next is riveting. And the “illogical logic” of Burns’ humor is enough to keep one thinking. It isn’t a sit back and passively be entertained show; the audience is working to keep up as Burns moves from story to story, decade to decade, performance to performance.

There’s also surprise in the tidbits of autobiographical and biographical information that come out about Burns, Allen and their show-business friends, namely the legendary entertainer Jack Benny.

Burns was always a good storyteller and this play about him is based on Burns’ reminisces of career and family life. But somehow, even though Burns is telling the story in what is his final performance, it’s Gracie Allen who steals the show, just as she did in their longtime comedic partnership.

And that’s the way Burns would have wanted it.

Priscilla Morrill can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 225, or pmorrill@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @PMorrill.

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