by: Paulanne Simmons
Jon Freda has the gestures, the hat, the New York accent, and most important, the nose that make him perfect for a solo show about Jimmy Durante. The show, directed by Eren T. Gibson, is called Imagine Dat!, apparently one of Durante’s favorite expressions, and one Freda often repeats during his performance.
There is a unifying idea here. Imagine Dat! begins with Durante stretched out on a table in a funeral home. In a moment he gets up, looks up and asks God why he has not yet been welcomed into heaven. God does not answer, so Durante launches into the first of many possible explanations for this rejection.
Was it his failure to learn the classical piano, as his father wanted? Was it his lack of attention to his wife? Was it an occasional, if (according to Durante) innocent dalliance? Or perhaps his struggle with alcoholism? While exploring these questions, Freda follows Durante’s life from the Lower East Side to the vaudeville stage to Hollywood.
Durante palled around with many of the great stars of the 20th century: Bob Hope, Eddie Cantor, Clara Bow, Frank Sinatra. Some of them he even knew before they became famous. This gives the audience an interesting glimpse into lesser known aspects of their lives.
The dialogue is liberally strewn with Durante jokes (many about that famous nose), There are also plenty of those legendary malapropisms, which Durante used mostly to reinforce his image as a man of humble beginnings. For instance he discusses his life in “elemental school.”
The best parts of the show are when Freda bursts into one of Durante’s signature songs such as “Inka-Dinka-Doo” or “Start off Each Day with a Song.” Durante may have been a larger-than-life personality, but he was a song and dance man first, and we need to see more of that.
Durante was also a pianist. In fact his first gigs were in piano bars where he played ragtime. Even if Freda is not a pianist, we should have heard a lot more of the music that launched Durante’s career.
At the end, we never do find out whether any of Durante’s fears about getting into heaven were justified. But we do learn a lot about an entertainer who ably navigated his career through changes that destroyed lesser talents.
It also appears that Durante did get to heaven. One imagines before he walked through the pearly gates, he tipped his hat and said, “Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”
Imagine Dat! runs through June 28 at The Triad, 158 West 72 Street, http://stage72.com.