Mr. Saturday Night Broadway Review. Billy Crystal Recreates His Borscht Belt Comic

In “Mr. Saturday Night,” opening on Broadway tonight, Billy Crystal stars as a very funny comedian who decades ago self-sabotaged, and is now trying to make a comeback.  The show itself is also very funny, and also something of an attempt at a comeback; and it too suffers from some self-sabotage. 

 “Mr. Saturday Night” can be  viewed as three shows in one. 

It is a stage adaptation of the 1992 movie of the same name about the rise and fall and redemption of Buddy Young Jr.  Crystal co-wrote, starred in, and directed the film, which didn’t do well at the box office. Now he has co-written the adaptation with the long-time prolific screenwriting team of Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, who also collaborated with him on the movie, and who, incredibly, are making their Broadway debuts.  

It’s also now a musical, with a score of 16 pleasant enough songs composed by Jason Robert Brown with lyrics by Amanda Green; the musical numbers are choreographed by Ellenore Scott (who also did Funny Girl this season.)

“Mr. Saturday Night” is, above all, a showcase for Crystal’s joke-telling. 

There’s something engaging about each of these three basic layers of “Mr. Saturday Night,” although Crystal’s comedy far more so than the story or the music.  But they exist uneasily together, and wind up undermining one another, not least because the running time of about 170 minutes (including intermission) — way longer than the movie — is too long for a light, sentimental comedy that gets its juice from quick-hit Borscht Belt humor.

The story toggles between two eras.   In the 1950s (presented in flashbacks out of chronological order) we see Abe Yankelman the waiter at a Catskills resort get his big break and turn into the up-and-coming comic Buddy Young Jr. We see his hit 1950s TV show on Saturday nights, where he was deemed the Kamikaze of Comedy. But he did something (the specifics of which we learn late in Act 2) that short-circuited his electric rise.

The main action unfolds in 1994. We first see Buddy doing a stand-up routine at a retirement center. The multiple screens on stage show photographs of an elderly audience, their inattentiveness and decrepitude the inspiration for most of Buddy’s jokes.

That night, he watches the Emmy Awards broadcast, which shows a photograph of him during its In Memoriam segment. Since he’s not dead, the mistake prompts renewed attention to the has-been comedian,  and dangles the possibility of bringing him back from career death. 

Buddy has a strained relationship with his brother Stan (David Paymer) who, having shied away from joining Buddy as half a comic duo back at the Catskills, became his manager for the next fifty years, and recently retired to Florida. Buddy also has a tense relationship with his daughter Susan (Soshana Bean), who at 40 is still struggling to find herself. And we learn that it’s Buddy’s fault for both estrangements. He’s self-centered. He’s too focused on his career.

The same might be said about “Mr. Saturday Night.” At the end of Act 1, his new agent  (Chasten Harmon) announces that a big-time director wants to cast him in a movie. The director turns out to be the grandson of the Catskill’s resort owner who gave Buddy his first break. Everybody breaks into song. It happens to be one of the two most memorable musical numbers in the show, “Unbelievable,”  whose exuberant vaudeville-tinged delivery evokes the ghost of Jimmy Durante.  If any song could make you care about Buddy’s career news, it would be this one. But, sue me, I didn’t.

In the other stand-out number, Buddy and his wife Elaine (Randy Graff) sing a funny sweet-and-sour duet entitled “My Wonderful Pain in the Ass.” It too begins connected to Buddy’s career — Elaine is trying to calm him down about his forthcoming audition for the movie role – but it winds up a paean to their love, and ends with some G-rated sexual suggestiveness:

Elaine: You’re looking good
Buddy: You must be blind
Elaine: You think we could?
Buddy: It might take some time

(Speaking later, in one of his many one-liners, he says to her: “Happy anniversary. Forty-five years! Eleven of the best years of my life.”)

The three who play Buddy’s relatives are fine actors (Paymer was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Stan in the movie) – good enough for us to care about their characters, and even for us almost to overlook the predictable sentimentality and unearned reconciliations.

 Crystal is a different story. Judging by his insult humor, his glum demeanor, self-destructive impulses, and his self-absorption, Buddy is supposed to be unlikeable. But Crystal himself is irresistibly likeable.  His portrayal is not, let’s say, deeply nuanced. But who cares? Billy Crystal is hilarious – whether in the stand-up routines, or satirizing Marlon Brando in a sketch (supposedly on his TV show) called “Under the Waterfront,” or in the back-and-forth wisecracks with all the other characters (many of whom are portrayed by the seven members of the ensemble.) 

If there’s a misstep in the humor of “Mr. Saturday Night,” it’s a familiar one, common to TV sitcoms – making almost every character funny, eg.:

Buddy: Stan! It happened! 
Stan: What? 
Buddy: The big break! 
Stan: What? Your hip? 

But Crystal is the master. It’s hard to relay how funny he is, because so many of his jokes are too corny to work well in print.  It’s all in the delivery.  Or, as one of the songs in the show puts it, “timing takes time.”

And Billy Crystal has put in the time. When he starred in the movie, he had to be aged for the scenes in which he played the present-day alte kaker. (The scenes from the movie in which he played his actual age at the time are used for photos and some brief video clips in the screen-heavy set design of the musical, to picture Buddy in his heyday.) “Thirty years later, I don’t need the makeup,” Crystal said after a recent performance of the musical, captured in one of the two videos below. Now 74, Crystal is probably older than Buddy. He’s also a lot nicer. But he’s exactly as funny.

Mr Saturday Night
Nederlander Theater
Running time: Two hours and 50 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets: $69 – $299 (digital lottery: $45)
Book by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel
Music by Jason Robert Brown; Lyrics by Amanda Green
Based on the Castle Rock Entertainment motion picture ‘Mr. Saturday Night’ written by Crystal, Ganz and Mandel 
Directed by John Rando, choreographed by Ellenore Scott;
Scenic design by Scott Pask, costume design by Paul Tazewell and Sky Switser, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, video and projection design by Jeff Sugg, sound design by Kai Harada, and hair and wig design by Charles LaPointe
Cast:  Billy Crystal as Buddy Young Jr. Randy Graff as Elaine Young; David Paymer  as Buddy’s brother Stan Yankleman; Shoshana Bean as Susan Young;  Chasten Harmon as agent Annie Wells, Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, Mylinda Hull, Stephen DeRosa, Henry Gainza, Tari Kelly, Tatiana Wechsler 

Photographs by Matthew Murphy 

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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