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 July 26, 2013

Now That Jackie (Hoffman)’s Back in Town

I came late to Jackie Hoffman’s party, and I’m so sorry I did. Oh, I did arrive at 54 Below in time for her 9:30 p.m. show this past Sunday – which was good, because it began precisely on the dot.

(And that MUST be a first for a cabaret show.)

No, my tardiness refers to getting to the third of Hoffman’s four Sundays in July. Had I gone to the first show instead, I would have been able to give you more of a heads-up to attend.

Nay, I would have insisted.

She’ll be back, I’m sure. Of course, if you ask Hoffman, she might give you the impression that she won’t live long enough, because she often stresses how ancient she is. In fact, the show is officially called Jackie Hoffman: Old Woman, New Material. But as Ann Landers once said, a zesty personality can take years off your age. Hoffman certainly has enough urine and vinegar to be a millennial. Who else could make an entrance that rivals Atahuallpa’s in The Royal Hunt of the Sun?

And just how old is Hoffman, given that she makes such a big deal of it? I checked and found that she’s a little bit younger than The Unsinkable Molly Brown -- meaning the musical, and not the actual Titanic passenger.

Call her Jackie the Ripper, for she makes one recent Oscar-winner and some recent Tony-winners the butts of her jokes while kicking their butts. Some stand-ups milk sacred cows; Hoffman decapitates them with her terribly funny swift sword. Does she ever cross the line? Sure, now and then she’s bound to offend someone. Her “I can say it because I’m Jewish” stance won’t be enough of an excuse for some. And yet, it’s a case of you just can’t help laughing, either, for as Hoffman learned long ago, the best comedy simply tells the truth.

Everything’s up to date in Jackie’s purview. Her take on New York’s new bike lanes offers a perception that would probably have never occurred to you. She also has a new term for full frontal nudity that will make you say, “Why didn’t I think of that?! It’s so obvious!” You’ll find the same shrewd and sharp observations in song that she not only sings, but for which she also wrote the lyrics. Ah, but the real geniuses notice things that slip by the rest of us mere mortals.

Hoffman lets us know the Broadway roles for which she’s auditioned and hasn’t been able to land. One is a show that’s currently playing in New York and is already on its third leading lady in nine months. Hoffman does the character’s big number and will have you shaking your head at why the powers-that-be didn’t have it in their heads to cast her. (Hey, geniuses: there’s still time.)

Now some will say, “Oh, Peter, Jackie Hoffman just entranced you because in this show she mentions the Theatre World Awards twice – and you love when anyone acknowledges the show you emcee and whose nominating committee you head.” Nah. It isn’t just I. Hoffman’s story about the time she won her award for her debut in Hairspray — as well as her observations about one pretentious moment in this year’s awards – got plenty of guffaws from the near-capacity crowd.

(Near-capacity. That rankles Hoffman, who mentions another Broadway performer who’s done better business at 54 Below. She occasionally shows us her rival’s poster, albeit usually upside-down -- the way that that 1987 mini-series Amerika had the victorious Russians make the defeated Americans fly their flag upside down. It’s punishment.)

No, I adored Jackie Hoffman even before she took the stage in Hairspray. I found her brilliant in the marvelously warm and wonderful 2001 film Kissing Jessica Stein. Hoffman plays Joan, a married woman who’s pregnant and whose baby will arrive about halfway through the film. What’s magnificent about her performance is that Hoffman makes Joan a woman who staunchly believes in her own worth. I mean, let’s face it: Hoffman’s face and body would never launch a thousand ships. But here she is, convincing us that this would not allow her lack of conventional attractiveness to stand in her way. She didn’t say, “What’s the use? I’m not pretty enough to get any man.” No – Hoffman showed us that Joan believed that she brought plenty of other assets to the table, so she dismissed her lack of good looks as only one debit that was overwhelmed by her many credits and got her man. As that wise, wise line goes in Forty Carats: “People take their cue from you.” And all the characters in Kissing Jessica Stein and all the audience members watching it took their cue from Joan and admired her.

Hoffman also dares to show us a side of Stephen Sondheim that we’d rather not see. This doesn’t stop her from singing a selection from Merrily We Roll Along – and you’ll never guess which one, although when you hear it, you’ll be nodding and saying “Of course that’s the one she’d do.” She doesn’t stop there. You may recall that Bea Arthur ended her 2002 one-woman show by half-closing her eyes and droning “And I’m not going to sing ‘I’m Still Here’.” But Hoffman finishes her show with it (not counting the de rigueur encore that always occurs after the show is over and the performer leaves the stage, exits out the side door, and then comes back). And while Sondheim’s melody for the Follies classic is as we’ve always heard it, you’ll find Hoffman singing new lyrics in a most atypical voice that makes a pungent comment about today’s Broadway.

So why am I going on and on about a show you probably won’t be able to see? Well, although this piece is published on Friday and Hoffman is doing only one more Sunday show this weekend, you still might just fit it in. And if you can’t, Hoffman’s about to do Domina in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor starting on Aug. 6.

In case anyone doubts that she’ll be terrific, she auditioned for us with “That Dirty Old Man” and proved that she’s up to the task. Better still: considering that Conrad John Schuck is playing Senex, won’t it be fun to see this diminutive woman pushing around this former Daddy Warbucks? This time I’m not going to be late to the party.

         — Peter Filichia

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