By Vanessa Wolf
Hollywood Arms, opening Friday at the Iao Theater, tells the story of Carol Burnett’s childhood beginning at age 12 through being on the verge of stardom at 22.
However, in contrast with the humor for which she ultimately became known, the play is described as “the autobiographical portrayal of three generations of women living on welfare.”
Director Michael Pulliam, when asked about this less-than-upbeat choice, explained, “I’ve been comparing ‘Hollywood Arms’ to ‘Terms of Endearment.’ There are many funny moments in that film and people love it, but it’s definitely not a comedy. I think when people see this show they may be inspired to call a friend, their mom, or make some sort of effort to either offer forgiveness or to ask for it. Burnett and her daughter Carrie Hamilton do not paint their flawed family in a negative light. They are just displayed truthfully, warts and all.”
Pulliam has lived on Maui for 11 years and directed plays previously in Chicago and Los Angeles. However, this is his first such endeavor on Maui. He describes his taste as “leaning toward heavier pieces – the kind of theater that rarely makes money on Maui” and ‘Hollywood Arms’ does not seem to be an exception.
Pulliam continued to say, “Even my own family thinks I’m a bit of a snob. Art is important to me and I feel the constant need to encourage people to appreciate work that is off the beaten track – classic film, literature, obscure music, foreign films. This is moving theater that requires a great deal of method acting. There are amazing dramatic performances by this cast and just between the adults you have about 150 years of classically trained acting experience from individuals that have traveled the world perfecting their craft.”
Still, it wasn’t an easy sell.
“I pitched it to the development committee at Maui OnStage about a year and a half ago. Truthfully if it hadn’t been about Carol Burnett, I doubt if this play would have been produced. It is definitely an emotional piece but there are very funny moments, and in the end it’s a ‘triumph of will’ success story, so there is a happy ending simply by knowing where Burnett ended up.”
The play is also unique in that it features child actors.
Pulliam had a small pool to choose from, but “I have known Marley Mehring – the 12-year old actress who plays the child Burnett – for a few years, and I had faith she could pull it off. It is an incredibly difficult role that requires her to cry, scream, yell, cuss, sing, and be funny. She has gone to places I wasn’t completely sure she could get to. She truly has become an actress and I think audiences will be blown away.”
The show has prompted more than one actress involved to fine tune her craft.
Pulliam commented, “Julianna Scharnhorst plays the college version of Burnett. It wasn’t until we were about three weeks into rehearsal that I discovered that she has the most difficult role. She has to argue and cry like everyone else in the cast, but also mimic Carol Burnett, sing, and be the funniest one on stage. The audience has to believe she not only is Burnett, but that she has the talent to make it on Broadway. Scharnhorst amazes me every night, when you see her in full costume and make up, performing her skits and copying Burnett’s mannerisms, it is pretty uncanny.”
Carol Burnett herself has ties to the island. Her daughters went to Seabury and coincidentally – the dates were chosen before the show was – opening night will coincide with her 80th birthday.
She acknowledged the Maui production by sending “an autographed photo and a well wishes letter,” and clearly her approach to life has influenced more than just the plot of the play.
Pulliam concluded with an anecdote from the days of the Carol Burnett Show. “Right before the show began production she gathered the entire cast and crew and told them that the network believed her show would fail. She explained that it would probably be cancelled, so ‘let’s do our show our way and have fun.’ Her theory was that if it was a flop, at least they could be proud of the work. Of course nothing could have been further from the truth. Still, I believe if you put your whole heart and soul into a show and have fun doing it, then the audience will find it.”
Hollywood Arms opens on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku.
Performances continue through May 5 on Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays 3 p.m.
Reserved seating tickets can be purchased online and range from $17 to $28.
Have an idea for a fun or thought-provoking story or topic? Get in touch: we want to hear from you. -Vanessa (@mauinow.com)