|MR. SATURDAY NIGHT|
Fittingly enough for a show about a comedian who gets his big break in the 1940s Catskills, the new musical “Mr. Saturday Night,” now at the Nederlander Theater under John Rando’s competent direction, reminds me of the dinners I used to have at Grossinger’s and The Concord when I visited them in the 1970s. There’s too much of almost everything; some of it should have remained in the kitchen; and the good stuff is really, really good!
Or in the case of Billy Crystal, the show’s driving force as star and co-writer, the operative word is superb! Re-creating his role as the acerbic, hilarious and eventually bitter Buddy Young, Jr. from the 1992 film of the same name, Crystal delivers the kind of star performance that has been mostly missing from Broadway this season and which audiences are eating up with a giant teaspoon.
Crystal’s delivery of the script’s many one-liners rival the skill of the finest pitchers in baseball, causing much of the audience to frequently erupt in laughter, and he handles the minimal challenges of Jason Robert Brown’s and Amanda Green’s rather lightweight score and Eleanore Scott’s simple choreography with the ease he used to be bring to his hosting duties at the Oscars.
Above all, he makes us root for the essentially less-than-lovable Buddy, whose combination of unbridled ego and deep insecurity (a trait common to many comedians) causes him to lash out inappropriately, leading to both his professional downfall and some strained personal relationships. Still, Buddy has been softened in a way that makes him fairly likeable, which makes theatrical sense but semi-defeats most of the plot.
For example, it doesn’t take long for Buddy to win over his new agent Annie (a charming Chasten Harmon), even if he never seems to remember her name. Moreover, the stakes feel deflated in the dysfunctional family drama department: there’s no real issue with his long-suffering but loving wife Elaine (a fine if underused Randy Graff) – who periodically dreams about a quieter life in Tahiti – and we sense he’ll never be fully estranged from his almost saintly brother Stan (David Paymer, gamely reprising his Oscar-nominated role from the film), whom Buddy treats like dirt.
The one relationship that really does feel in danger is between Buddy and his now-40ish daughter Susan (a sensational Shoshana Bean) who rightly feels she was neglected as a child and is still playing the proverbial second fiddle to her dad, even in the eyes of her mom. A magnificent vocalist, Bean makes the most of her songs, notably the poignant “Maybe It Starts with Me.”
Alas, this bifurcated plot is one reason the show feels overstuffed and overlong at two-and-a-half hours. The other is the presence of too many musical numbers, including a handful for the talented Jordan Gelber, Mylinda Hull, and Brian Gonzales, who play Buddy’s friends from the 1940s and who simply don’t need to be here.
The show, however, could benefit from a more elaborate production; the orchestra is surprisingly small, Scott Pask’s sets are fairly simple (and not helped much by Jeff Sugg’s projections) and Paul Tazewell and Sky Switser’s costumes are relatively uninspired.
But let’s be real: the audience is here to gaze at (and listen to) Crystal, and if he’s willing to settle in for a long Broadway run, it’s not inconceivable “Mr. Saturday Night” could run for 700 Saturdays.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Billy Crystal, Randy Graff, David Paymer, Shoshana Bean, Chasten Harmon, Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, Mylinda Hull
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