Royal George Theatre. By Hershey Felder. Directed by Felder. With Chris Lemmon. Running time: 1hr 30mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Gwen Purdom
Chicago audiences have come to know playwright and director Hershey Felder over the last decade for his particular ability to bring legends to life. His piano-centric one-man shows have embodied greats like George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Beethoven and more to great acclaim. So Felder alone taking on the life story of actor Jack Lemmon would already put the charming movie star and pianist’s narrative in capable hands. But it’s not just Felder who’s channeling Lemmon in Jack Lemmon Returns—it’s Chris Lemmon, Jack’s real-life son, an actor and pianist himself.
That intimate casting is at the root of what makes Lemmon Returns so likeable. Not only does the younger Lemmon bear a striking resemblance to his late father (Jack died at 76 in 2001), he has, not surprisingly, mastered the actor’s stammering, squirrelly mannerisms and poise as well, making for a genuinely immersive experience for those familiar with Lemmon’s work—and a still warmly entertaining one for those who aren’t.
Playing his father in a production based on his own 2006 memoir, A Twist of Lemmon, means there’s clearly more at stake for Chris Lemmon, and that devotion burns through as Chris’s Jack recounts anecdote after glamorous Old Hollywood anecdote: Gregory Peck sidling up to Lemmon’s piano at a party, young Chris getting caught sneaking into neighbor Marilyn Monroe’s yard, director John Ford offering Lemmon his dream part.
The entire production, woven together with Chris Lemmon’s original piano arrangements, has the comfortable air of an old family friend sharing well-trodden tales around a living room piano, painting a more vivid portrait of a man most theatergoers only know from his roles. The portrayal is tinged with starry-eyed admiration, to be sure, but Lemmon doesn’t shy away from his father’s indiscretions—the elder Lemmon divorced Chris’s mother early, was away a lot and battled at least one bout of alcoholism—though even then, Lemmon’s idolized version of his "Pop" still seems to win out.
With little more onstage than a piano and stark projection screens that flash images of Lemmon’s most famous films like—Some Like It Hot, Mister Roberts, The Odd Couple, The China Syndrome—and scenes of his childhood and family, we’re asked mainly to listen. What we hear is an affectionate and all-together absorbing tribute.