The Borscht Belt is alive and kvell on Broadway.
Over at the Nederlander Theatre is Billy Crystal’s joke-stuffed new musical “Mr. Saturday Night,” which opened Wednesday and puts the followspot on old-school yuks. Hearty laughs. The glorious punchlines that have eluded most new musicals are here knocked outta the park by a master.
Two and a half hours, with one intermission. At the Nederlander Theatre, <br>208 W. 41st St.
I’ll have what Billy’s having. The 74-year-old actor is in tremendous form and the generous showman persona we love him for, not to mention his god-like timing, is allowed to go bananas. He’s made some dud films lately, but this is Crystal reliving his “When Harry Met Sally” prime.
Crystal’s musical, which he’s written the book for alongside Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, is based on one of his lesser films, 1992’s “Mr. Saturday Night,” which got mixed reviews back then. The story of a TV comedy has-been’s attempt at a comeback moves gracefully to the stage, and comes at a more appropriate time in the actor’s life.
Thirty years older and wiser, he still plays Buddy Young, a faded comedy legend of a long-gone black-and-white show called the “Coleman Comedy Hour” who was blackballed after a mental breakdown. Now he does depressing morning stand-up gigs at retirement homes. One of his go-to gags: “Moses called. He said you were a good f – – k!”
One night, while watching the Emmys with his supportive wife Elaine (Randy Graff), he spots his own mug during the “In Memoriam.” And the next morning, he goes on a career revitalizing “I’m not dead!” press tour.
Buddy’s new notoriety forces him to confront bitter family conflicts. Crystal has brought back his movie co-star David Paymer, who got an Oscar nod for playing Buddy’s estranged brother Stan. He’s once again tender and terrific. Stan doubled as Buddy’s manager, and they weren’t speaking until Stan thought his bro was kaput. The Emmys’ screwup brings them together.
The talented singer Shoshana Bean is frenzied and upset as Buddy’s daughter Susan, who resents her pop’s self-absorption. The role is larger than it needs to be, but eventually wraps the show in a touching bow.
Buddy is also shaken up by a young agent named Annie (Chasten Harmon), who is completely unaware of not only his illustrious past, but any comedy greats before her time. She does her research and becomes his greatest defender. (I have a feeling this character will tick off a lot of real agents who are showbiz encyclopedias.)
Three boisterous actors (Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales and Mylinda Hull), channeling the proteans in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” play all the other parts — from writers to chefs and little kids. There are kitschy flashback scenes to Buddy and Stan’s early days at a Catskills resort, and director John Rando takes us there using Jeff Sugg’s video screens. The straightforward scenery, at times, could use some of the book’s wit.
There’s one thing to kvetch about with “Mr. Saturday Night”: it would be better as a straight play than a song-and-dance show. Jason Robert Brown has composed a bland point-A-to-point-B score that’s not as hilarious or textured as the text. Similar to “Tootsie” before it, the star here is the scenes, not the tunes.
But, oh, those scenes. Where else on Broadway can you find Billy Crystal leading an audience in a chant of “OY VEY! OY VEY!”?
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