The 1992 film Mr. Saturday Night was met with a “meh” reception. Billy Crystal’s valentine to Borsht Belt-style comedy found itself derailed by excessive aging make-up and an unresolved vicious streak that alienated its hero. Aware of his popularity, skill with stand-up, and our current outsized need for laughter, the comedian/actor has remounted and lightened up his story adding music and the potential for sympathy.
Billy Crystal (Buddy), David Paymer (Stan)
In the film, Buddy Young Jr.’s ersatz humiliation of his manager/brother was a given. “Stan, let’s each do what we do best, huh?” Buddy says. “I’ll tell the jokes, you get me a sandwich.” David Paymer, who repeats the role of Stan in this version, earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He’s great here, too.
For the musical iteration, sibling abuse is reduced in favor of Buddy’s estrangement from his 40 year-old daughter Suzie (Shoshana Bean), who has resolved drug issues but remains rudderless – Buddy pays for Suzie’s therapy. Paternal alienation creates a more accessible resolution. We get a glimpse of her father using the five year-old girl to garner attention for his act, then, when she quits, hiring a stand-in – their relationship in a nutshell.
Randy Graff (Elaine), Billy Crystal (Buddy)
At this point in Buddy Young Jr.’s (Billy Crystal) declining career, he’s reduced to playing retirement homes. The actor is hands down terrific in front of a live audience. Timing is impeccable and oh, how he reads us. As if on cue, response comes every time he “assumes the pose.” The protagonist hasn’t changed style, but his attitude’s gone bitter. “Jesus Christ, folks, if you’re having a good time, tell your face!” he deadpans. “I know you’re out there, I can see you decomposing.”
At home, watching the Emmy Awards, wife Elaine (Randy Graff, in a thankless role additionally lacking marital chemistry) sees his name come up “In Memorium.” Response is immediate. A bereavement brisket arrives at the door, his retired brother flies from Florida assuming the report is true, and Buddy gets an invitation from Good Morning America to appear the next day. It could be a springboard to the next chapter! Stan reluctantly agrees to stay and help. The appearance goes well. Buddy is quick and funny.
Billy Crystal (Buddy); Annie Wells (Chasten Harmon)
Vignettes at The Friar’s Club feature three (at liberty) friends/comics from the fifties who step in and out of background roles like a Greek Chorus: Joey (Jordan Gelber), Bobby (Brian Gonzales), and Lorraine (Mylinda Hull), are energetic and purposefully schmaltzy.
Because of new exposure, Buddy is set up to lunch with a big agent. Instead, minion Annie Wells (a thoroughly appealing Chasten Harmon) shows up. As if that weren’t sufficient insult, she’s unfamiliar with the club’s history and virtually every legendary comic with whom Buddy apoplectically assails her. “My opening act was once Eddie Fisher/Now I should take advice from this pisher?!” he sings – well enough.
Lyrics are indicative of those throughout, peppered with common Yiddish, articulately and directly explaining what’s going on, adding nothing to narrative. Music is equally yeoman-like. What’s going on in contemporary musicals that this should be the norm, not the exception?!
Billy Crystal (Buddy); Shoshana Bean (Suzie)
Annie does her homework and returns determined to get Buddy work. We then watch as her client repeatedly shoots himself in the foot, deeply angry at lack of appreciation, taking it out on whatever role he finds himself, insulting those in charge. It’s one disaster after another, until an unexpected opportunity arises. The road to repentance will be rough. A monologue is more touching than Buddy’s song. We see him “embarking.”
The wisecracking hero is one Crystal knows well and has performed in various incarnations over the years. His respect for the era and skills of his predecessors is clear. The hard working actor remains thoroughly likeable, holding up the production like Atlas.
Mr. Saturday Night is kind of a marriage between Neil Simon’s first play Come Blow Your Horn and the musical My Favorite Year (book -Joseph Dougherty, music -Stephen Flaherty, lyrics- Lynn Ahrens). It’s also admittedly entertaining. You’re likely to laugh. Crystal’s worth seeing.
Director John Rando handles the piece well enough. It hums along.
Scott Pask’s set is wonderfully mobile/adaptive and apt. Cutting up video into rectangles, however, seems disjointed and unnecessary.
Costumes by Paul Tazewell and Sky Switser are character appropriate; Greek Chorus ensembles, fun. The usually bankable Charles G. Lapointe manifests not-so believable hair and wig design.
Photos by Matthew Murphy
Mr. Saturday Night – A New Musical Comedy
Book by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel
Music by Jason Robert Brown
Lyrics by Amanda Green
Directed by John Rando
Based on the Castle Rock Entertainment motion picture Mr. Saturday Night, written by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel. By special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures.
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