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William Shatner boldly tackles death on Broadway

He doesn't beam in, but William Shatner does the next best thing at the start of his one-man Broadway show: He appears to the familiar orchestral strains of the "Star Trek" theme.
/ Source: The Associated Press

He doesn't beam in, but William Shatner does the next best thing at the start of his one-man Broadway show: He appears to the familiar orchestral strains of the "Star Trek" theme.

Then he soaks up the applause.

"Thank you," he says when it finally dies down. "You need an entrance because you put on a few years and a few pounds, nobody recognizes you."

That won't be a problem at the Music Box Theatre, where "Shatner's World: We Just Live In It" opened Thursday for a limited run ahead of a monthlong, 15-city U.S. tour. Shatner may be many things — goofy, charming, playful and crass — but he's instantly recognizable.

During his 100-minute set that flits between self and self-parody, Shatner traces his life — from growing up in Canada to acting alongside Christopher Plummer to "Star Trek" and "Boston Legal" to his musical career. He does it all dressed in a pair of jeans, a suit coat and an open collared shirt, and uses that comforting-yet-strange, overly theatrical, halting delivery.

Perhaps it's the fact that he's approaching his 81st birthday, but Shatner seems to be dwelling a lot on mortality these days. "Death is the final frontier," he says at one point, a twist on the opening monologue of "Star Trek."

There's actually a lot of death in the show. Shatner discusses how he approached killing off James T. Kirk — using the same "awe and wonder" Kirk had for life — and also his father's passing (we learn Shatner escorted the body home to Montreal and picked out a cheap pine casket, thinking his dad would appreciate the thriftiness.) There is a story about the death of a beloved horse and a mention of his third wife, Nerine, who drowned.

Yet the show somehow avoids becoming overly maudlin. "Love is the difference between the cold light of the universe and the warmth of the human spirit," Shatner says. "And life doesn't have to end when love is present."

Still, Shatner is bothered by what comes next. He lingers on the supposed final words of Timothy Leary ("Of course") and Steve Jobs ("Oh, wow"), wondering what it all means. "What happens at the other end? I don't know!" he demands, almost screaming.

The crowd on one preview night seemed game to just let Shatner be Shatner. None wore "Star Trek" tunics or spoke Vulcan. They were happy simply to watch him boldly go.

This is a very personal show for such an egomaniacal title, with Shatner taking the audience through his years at McGill University, to playing the lead in "Henry V" at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, to the unhappy Broadway show "The World of Suzie Wong."

We learn about his love of horses, his TV shows, his strange encounter with the famous sign language speaking gorilla Koko, and his collaboration with Ben Folds. Did you know he hates rats? Or that a kidney stone he passed earned $25,000 for Habitat for Humanity?

Shatner illustrates his stories with film and video clips or photographs projected onto a huge globe, set against a black backdrop shimmering with stars. His is a selective history — no Leonard Nimoy, but a dig or two at George Takei. There's a story about "Rescue 911" but not a mention of "T.J. Hooker." Director Scott Faris has helped shape the material with the lightest of hands, perhaps too light.

For "Trekkies," Shatner recalls first seeing the initial pilot of "Star Trek" — filmed without him — and liking what he saw. "It's filled with aliens and heroes and girls with green paint and tiny bikinis — everything I'm interested in," he says.

There are other sweet memories, too, like the time he signed the lunar module on a trip to NASA headquarters at the Kennedy Space Center in 1968. There also are bittersweet ones, like the time a young boy stumbled upon him at his lowest point — broke and divorced and living in his truck — and asked for a tour of his "space ship."

Shatner closes the show by performing his only song of the night — "Real" from his 2007 album "Has Been." It is very much like Shatner himself, a little out of date, a little bizarre, but endearing nonetheless.

"I wish I knew the things you think I do/I would change this world for sure/But I eat and sleep and breathe and bleed and feel," he sings, kind of. "Sorry to disappoint you/But I'm real."