Theatre Preview:In Jack Zullo’s reprogramed original piece “With a Little Help…It’s John Belushi!” a very important question is asked of us the audience. Why does the world tend to remember great artists more for how they died than what they accomplished and how they actually lived?
Whether it’s Vincent Van Gogh or Chuck Berry, of course we forever see those glorious swirling countrysides or still tap our feet to the impenetrable sounds of primitive 1950’s Rock n Roll. But for certain artists in the entertainment field, whether it’s Marylyn Monroe or Kurt Cobain, there always has to be a tinge of their demise, an afterlife aftertaste which lingers forever on the tongues of our memories, which cannot help but remind us that life and creation itself is still yet a temporary mortal achievement. And therefore (as the theory goes) they may be gone, but they become immortal by living through their enduring art.
John Belushi was America’s last true comedy meteor. Sure, there have been comics who took us on a dangerous joyride of their lives and we all slurped up every bit until when they’re suddenly taken from us, we then mourn their passing like a great childhood memory gone forever; accidentally finding out Santa Claus isn’t real by walking into our parents’ plotting conversation. Chris Farely, Gilda Radner, and Phil Hartman are just 3 of the 11 SNL cast members gone onto the exclusive club of The Not Ready for Dead Time Players. And all of them are missed and indeed still loved and cherished to this day. However, one SNL alumnus remains the king of all originals who have passed on and that man is and was and still is the late John Belushi. And yet, he has become somewhat of a sacred comedy cow and his death still overshadows his life, like those frozen in lava stone victims of Pompeii revealing nothing of the great dead city in which they thrived.
His college days were filled with party-on philosophy and action and yet, Zullo maintained a keen observational overview that allowed him to study very carefully what in fact made the late John Belushi so beloved to begin with. John’s unabashed never quenched thirst for life. And by life, we’re talking partying and making comedy. Of equal value. Sure, many other comedians have had their party days, but Belushi was equally as defined by his drinking and drugging as he was by his comedy. And that’s what made him even more compelling to watch. Because you just never knew when it was his final performance. The talent of full on participation and simultaneous keen observation is what makes a true artist and Jack Zullo is the best of the best. With his newly revised show review, “With a Little Help…It’s John Belushi!” (a critical 2016 Hollywood Fringe success originally branded “Live From the Grave…It’s John Belushi!”), Jack brings back, in intense and accurate detail, exactly who John was at and on each stage of his early career and therefore what he was as a performer at and on each stage throughout his life.
As we follow the storyline of the little big man from the suburbs of Chicago go from bit player to the biggest comedy star on the planet, we are given a keen insight into precisely what it took and indeed how much Belushi believed in himself and his talents before anyone ever did. In as much as anyone in showbiz must endure and overcome obstacles to make it, as portrayed, John Belushi walked a very fine line of pissing off his allies and colleagues, which only a true chaotic comedy genius not just could, but would. Like The Marx Brothers showing up at Louie B. Mayer’s MGM offices completely naked to protest censorship or even just for the fun. John Belushi was so confident in himself and his talents, to an almost but not quite, arrogant degree. And even when he was unabashedly arrogant, his charm was always there to rescue and recuse him out of any awkward situation, whether it was convincing his girlfriend Judy with a kiss or displacing friend and life partner Dan Aykroyd’s frustration by simply picking up a harmonica and blowing the shit out of it. To step on or over anybody to get there, but to not be stepped on himself, as demonstrated when he confronted National Lampoon head Matty Simmons or defied an early Lorne Michaels’ cold indifference, which was bolstered by a tagging along GIlda Radner, by simple persistence. As far as a comedian advocate, John Belushi was the unintentional original. And the comedian he advocated for the most was of course himself.
The show opens with a raucous top-notch world-class blues band, helmed by Robin Russell and the Crazy Tomes Band, which tells us the audience immediately, this is gonna be a very fun night and indeed it was. What the show is basically is a switchback template between narrator Zullo/Belushi telling us the audience what was next for him, then cutting to vignette and scene and then back to the center mic for a roaring version of Rubber Biscuit with sideman Dan. The idea here is actually quite unique, and this writer has never seen it anywhere. Jack starts the story at when John discovers his love for comedy and ends it at the height of his career, leaving out the nasty unfortunate stain of John’s tragic and way too soon Hollywood death.
What makes this show fun is that we’re taken along the journey to success from minute detail to minute step up. From John first going to see Second City and asking his friend Dan to get him an audition, to John making up on his feet he’s part of an improv troupe called The West Compass Players. He practices his Joe Cocker at home to the behest of Judy who wants him to come to bed. Joyce Sloan from Second City admonishes him not to steal from their touring show. John is warned not to do “even a whisper of Second City material.” So there is tension and set up for the underlying drama and when we see John forging ahead no matter what, it’s nothing less than inspirational. Rounding out the cast are a bevvy of wonderful young actors, as well as a few seasoned ones. I’m not gonna pick and choose who I liked in particular, but if you imagine the creatives behind the scenes such as Tony Hendra, Lorne Michaels, as well as National Lampoon’s Matty Simmons, you get the idea that we’re also on an educational journey that informs the audience, that genius cannot exist with one man alone. And indeed the show itself is exactly the same.
“I really liked what you did. you really captured the spirit of the time. I was there for that…I loved how aggressive you made John on stage.” – Jim Belushi 2016
Context is everything in art and John’s first television appearance is him getting hit with tear gas at the ‘68 Chicago Democratic convention. CUT TO: Belushi and cohorts doing one of their classic Second City sketches mocking police intimidation. John walked the walk in life, then talked the talk on stage. That alone is the textbook definition of journalistic comedy and it should be memorialized, and Zullo does just that. John Belushi was no Bluto. He was a very smart political satirist who actually put his life at risk in real life and dealt with things through his comedy art.
My only criticism is that the performance I saw was somewhat on the fly in the sense you got the feeling not all had enough rehearsal. There were moments when the stage was a frozen tableau, the actors looking at one another like WTF! Very briefly, then broken by the missed offstage line or actor entrance or lighting cue. Having said that, that’s when Jack the man behind it all demonstrated leadership and whipped them snow doggies back into action. In fact, I have inside info they are working those creases out by the second and final preview.
“With a Little Help…It’s John Belushi!” lands smack in the middle of Hollywood history, as it prepares its ultimate journey to the Belushi Valhalla known as Theatre 80 in New York City this December, where it will be directed by Levy Lee Simon with a mainly new cast. This show remembers the great John Belushi for his lust for life, not his playing with the devil which ultimately lead to his early death. And that alone makes “With a Little Help…It’s John Belushi!” as entertaining and daring as the man himself.
Only one more LA preview! October 2 @ The Whitefire Theatre
LA Cast members include: Jack Zullo as Belushi, Keith Saltojanes as Danny, Stephanie LeHane as Gilda, Joya Mia Italiano as Eugenie, Samantha Jane as Billie, Christopher DeMaci as Tino and Del Close, Carly Hatter as Judy, Kennan McCarthy as Lorne, Steve Whittle as Brian, Riley Schuett as Harold, Louie Mandrapilias as Bernie, Chad Little as Matty, Mark Towns as Dan Payne and Tony, Adam Lau as Steve and Christopher, Bryce David Harrison as Phil and Chevy, Chrisi Talyn Saje as Joyce, Ray Chao as Joe, Jeremiah Benjamin as Jim Fisher.
LA staging, documentor and director Eric Michael Kochmer, Lindsay Castillo-Dilyou Stage Manager, Rehearsal Tech and Show, Rachael Stein Stage Manager, Tech and Show.
For Larf Magazine, this is Steven Alan Green 9/27/19