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Theater Review: "A Twist of Lemmon" at Downstairs Cabaret 

"A Twist of Lemmon" offers a rare glimpse into the creative process and personal life of two-time Academy Award-winning actor Jack Lemmon, who starred in films such as "Some Like It Hot" opposite Marilyn Monroe, and "The Odd Couple" and "Grumpy Old Men" opposite Walter Matthau. The story is delivered through his own perspective as played by his son, Chris Lemmon. And to his credit, the younger Lemmon opens the show by asking the question on many people's minds: "So what do you do if you're this guy's kid?"

In response, Chris Lemmon wrote and directed this one-man show and plays a stunningly spot-on Jack Lemmon. It should come as no surprise, since he grew up watching his father's career, shares his genes, and can take cues from film and TV clips that remain. But the choice to play his father rather than himself was still a bold one -- and one that impressively enhances the show.

The entire story was drawn from Chris Lemmon's memoir of the same name, which he published in 2006 (the book features a foreword by Kevin Spacey, a close friend and mentee of Jack Lemmon). The show also shares a name with Jack's 1959 jazz album -- he was a brilliant self-taught pianist -- which he called "A Twist of Lemmon/Some Like It Hot." Chris Lemmon, like his father, is a talented pianist, albeit professionally trained (he holds degrees in classical piano and composition from the California Institute of the Arts), and wrote original music for the show. He plays some of his father's favorite tunes and a few classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Throughout the show, Lemmon follows the performance advice his father gave him when he first taught him to play the piano: "It should put a smile on your face and a tear in your eye. That's what makes it great, kid." The production recounts the dazzling glamour of life as Jack Lemmon (and his son) -- parties in the Hollywood hills with stars like Gregory Peck and James Cagney, growing up near Marilyn Monroe's beach house, and playing football with John F. Kennedy -- and poignant moments that detail the strong father and son bond the two shared. He shares the pain of his parents' divorce through the eyes of his father, and the decades of alcoholism before the elder Lemmon sought help. The audience has the chance to peer behind the curtain of classic Hollywood -- a delight for those who remember those days, though some references will surely fly over the head of younger audience members.

Lemmon keeps a consistent energy, pinging between walking around and sitting on the minimalist set (tailored to look like a Hollywood film set with stacked trunks, barrels, and suitcase; several enlarged, black and white photos of Lemmon and his father behind-the-scenes in Hollywood hanging above the set) and playing the piano. A screen provides the largest backdrop, with film clips and photos accentuating each vignette in the show, the multimedia projections becoming a second character of sorts. "A Twist of Lemmon" runs an easy 90 minutes, and the energy doesn't drag at any point.

The challenge of any show that recounts factual events, of course, is staying true to the narrative while managing to tell a great story. Not every moment of life -- even the most famous of lives -- is filled with excitement and suspense. In his post-show talkback on Friday, Lemmon admitted some of the details in the show had been stretched or rearranged to maintain an interesting story arch.

After its run at Downstairs Cabaret Theatre, "A Twist of Lemmon" will undergo a few changes, including the addition of an intermission, and debut on the West End in London before opening Off-Broadway. It is a fitting trajectory for a show almost a decade in development. "If I've learned anything in my life," Lemmon says after he breaks character near the end of the show, "it's that there's no easy way to follow greatness -- but in honoring, it'll live on."

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