MR. SATURDAY NIGHT - Nederlander Theatre
Late in the first act of “Mr. Saturday Night” there’s a charming musical number called “Timing” which strikes to the core of any comedian’s skill, and, at the same time, epitomizes all that is perfectly entertaining about this pleasing new musical comedy. The show is also all about Billy Crystal, whose timing for his generation of comics is arguably non-pareil. The show’s adapted, pretty faithfully, from his 1992 movie. Now, as then, Crystal plays Buddy Young, a retired curmudgeon of a comedian, who remembers his golden days in the Borscht Belt and the heady days of live 1950s variety television where he fleetingly was a hit.
Nowadays, Buddy’s playing the retirement community circuit, hurling Don Rickles-like insults to nursing home audiences: “You, the lady in the third row. I heard Moses is looking for a date”. Forgotten in show-biz, he’s desperate for the spotlight again. When a comeback chance arrives (a plum, minor part as an old comedian in a feature film), his ego and pain-in-the-assness resurfaces. First he stretches the loyalty of his brother Stan (David Paymer) who played second-fiddle on stage when they started out together as kids, but hung on as his abused, long-suffering personal manager. (Whatever Stan’s career advice, Buddy did what he wanted anyway.) The comeback also tests once again the marital resilience of his wife Elaine (Randy Graff). Finally, his smothering ego erupts any relationship he had with his struggling 40-year old daughter Susan (Shoshana Bean) who as child and part of his TV act, was told by Buddy she wasn’t good enough; her life’s been a bucket of dysfunctional woe ever since.
It’s all standard melodramatic fare, but it’s spritely paced by director John Rando (director of the London’s Broadway-bound, musical version of “Back to the Future”) and peppered with Catskill circuit humor written by Crystal, along with Lowell Ganz and Baballo Mondel (all of whom worked on the movie). The songs are serviceably constructed; they both expose character and move the book along nicely. The numbers are seamlessly interspersed with Buddy's routines, which besides being just plain funny are also homages to the comic greats, like Milton Bearle, George Jessel, Jack Benny and dozens more who informed American pop culture.
Cleverly, director Rando integrates a comical trio as Greek chorus into the plot; their musical sketch as product advertisements (like a pack of cigarettes) in one of the 1950s TV scenes is delicious. The 6 piece orchestra is placed upstage for all the show biz scenes; Buddy’s New York apartment wheels in for the family ones. There’s a lovely duet between Buddy and Elaine in the second act “My Wonderful Pain (in the ass)”
Of the 17 musical numbers, the best song is the melodically complex “Maybe It Starts with Me” written for Buddy’s daughter Susan. As performed by Shoshana Bean, with her natural spunk and textured voice, she almost steals the show. But she can’t because “Mr. Saturday Night” is Billy Crystal’s. And no matter how much Billy tries to play Buddy as a complicated louse, the real Billy himself comes through as one of the flat-out, funniest, most likable comedians we have.