Frank Caliendo has a unique career as a comedian. Not unlike an American Idol favorite or a late night talk show host, the impressionist’s career is dependent on the work of other, usually more famous, people. As far as this specific comic crevice is concerned, Caliendo is the Kelly Clarkson of celebrity impersonations and the Johnny Carson of pop culture mimicking. His ability to meld spot-on vocal replications and exaggerated character traits of politicians, actors, and sports figures has yielded the comic such impressive opportunities as a place in the MADtv cast, the role of resident funny man for two football pregame shows, a short-lived TBS show called Frank TV, and the ability to tour theaters throughout the country.
Saturday, the longtime Waukesha resident and UW-Milwaukee graduate returned home for a pair of Riverside Theater shows. He brought dozens of beloved guests with him for the first of two performances that found him leapfrogging from one voice to another over the course of one energetic early afternoon hour.
Donning an Aaron Rodgers away jersey, the hometown hero came out to a huge ovation. “I thought I’d be taller, too,” he started. That opening quip would turn out to be one of just a few jokes that didn’t rely on an impression. Almost immediately, Caliendo furrowed his brow, pursed his lips, and took on a New York accent to transform into Donald Trump. Within moments, Morgan Freeman came out to narrate the matinee performance, and to be a safety net he’d routinely use when a joke didn’t quite land (always with the accusation the audience couldn’t keep up with him). By the 10 minute mark, we were introduced to: George W. Bush—while not exactly timely, it was flawlessly executed—as well as Bill Clinton, Michael J. Fox, Beaker from The Muppets, and Rodney Dangerfield. In effort to freshen up the outdated arsenal of voices, Caliendo took the crowd through his process of figuring out President Obama’s cadence, and proceeded to dictate the titular digits from “867-5309” in a C+ Obama voice. “That’s Jenny’s number!” Bush responded, to which Caliendo’s Clinton smirked and said “You bet it is.”
The format of loosely stringing persona after persona together continued to his famed Charles Barkley impersonation, complete with literally dozens of “TURRABULL”s in the process. He did Jeff Goldblum talking about his favorite food, Liam Neeson threatening a telemarketer with his “very particular set of skills,” and did a voiceover for a trailer of a non-existent Adam Sandler film called Simple Simon: The Pie Man. As accurate or humorously exaggerated as many of the voices were, not many were bolstered by actual jokes. More so, Caliendo was leading a one-man show that featured a massive cast. A character was introduced, an absurd premise for that character was laid out (Barkley playing Scrabble and Al Pacino auditioning for the role of Darth Vader), and Caliendo would play it out—occasionally having another voice drop in the scenario in the process. Well aware of his audience, the homegrown headliner made sure one such scenario featured John Madden talking about Brett Favre, before flowing into the funniest bit of the afternoon—Madden offering commentary to other video games, including Super Mario Bros. “Take it from me, if you step on a turtle in real life, none of that stuff happens,” Caliendo offered in a perfect Madden dialect.
While he’s mastered many impressions, the abundance of voices he offered led to some—such as Terry Bradshaw, Dennis Miller, and Stephen A. Smith—missing the mark. However, Caliendo dug his heels into his 10 or so strongest impersonations, leading to a heft of Madden, Jon Gruden, Barkley, and Bush…with trusty old Morgan Freeman to bail him out as necessary. Sadly, the fairly impressive tour de force that saw Caliendo proficiently channeling celebrities the previous 50 minutes was derailed when he sought audience requests. After the shouts subsided, he offered fair to good vocal recreations of Mike Ditka, Mel Kiper Jr., Chris Farley, Shaq, Lou Holtz, and Jack Nicholson. It wasn’t a traditional stand-up comedy show. In fact, it wasn’t a stand-up comedy show at all. Essentially, a packed Riverside Theater was witness to a party trick of sorts, one Caliendo executes with astonishing skill.
In 60 minutes, Milwaukee saw roughly 50 people flowing through the Waukesha expat’s vocal chords, facial expressions, and mannerisms. While some voices were executed perfectly, the entertainment occasionally took a backseat to accuracy. Caliendo’s penchant for comic karaoke has taken him great places, and his return was met with a great deal of local excitement. It would’ve been nice if he’d brought more material back with him.