Review: Billy Crystal's Mr. Saturday Night Musical Is Matzo Ball Soup for the Jewish Soul
Crystal delivers the punchlines in a stage version of his 1992 movie.
Billy Crystal's sweet and hilarious Broadway musical adaptation of his unsuccessful 1992 movie Mr. Saturday Night is practically created with two groups in mind: old Jews, and old Jews at heart. Rarely has there been a show more perfectly tailored to its target audience, the kind of people who either have fond memories of summering in the Catskills at Kutsher's or Grossinger's, or fond memories of hearing their parents talk about their fond memories.
Firmly in the latter camp (and having proudly memorized albums like the 2000 Year Old Man as a child), I found Mr. Saturday Night, running at the Nederlander Theatre, to be matzo ball soup for my Jewish soul. Though a solid 45 minutes too long, it feels like a warm hug from your bubbe, brimming with the same kind of heart and humor that have sustained our people through generations of oppression. In short, it's one of my favorite musicals of the season, even if it doesn't entirely know how to be a musical.
Crystal, who wrote the book with screenwriting partners Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (they of City Slickers and A League of Their Own fame), returns to the role he originated on screen, acerbic comedian Buddy Young Jr. Buddy was a household name back in the Golden Age of TV, but after a series of self-destructive incidents, he pretty much lost it all and was relegated to the cruise ship and nursing home circuit. After accidentally being included in the In Memoriam segment at the Emmys, Buddy sees an opportunity to have one last shot at stardom, but the only thing standing in the way is himself.
Buddy is surrounded by a gaggle of saints: his patient wife Elaine (played with classic Jewish warmth by Randy Graff), his devoted brother/manager Stan (David Paymer delightfully reprising his Oscar-nominated performance), his determined new agent Annie (Chasten Harmon in a very nice Broadway debut), and a trio of old performing partners (the shape-shifting Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, and Mylinda Hull). On the opposite side is his neglected daughter Susan (Shoshana Bean, who is always welcome to send songs cowritten by Jason Robert Brown into the stratosphere), a ne'er-do-well recovering addict who just wants some parental affection.
The film's downfall is that Buddy is an obnoxious prick from start to finish; the character, which Crystal honed on Saturday Night Live and in various specials before making the movie, is as much of an insult comedian in life as he is in a nightclub. For the musical, which has wittily heimish lyrics by Amanda Green in addition to Brown's score and orchestrations (more in the Honeymoon in Vegas style than The Last Five Years), Crystal seems to have taken the 30-year-old reviews to heart, downplaying the nastiness and turning Buddy into a person with a more recognizably human flaw: he lets his fears get in his way.
Does it work? Sort of. Not really. Mostly because the characters all talk about what an asshole Buddy is, and Crystal is like a sweet little Jewish zaide — he's almost too affable for the part now. Do I care? Sort of. Not really. His work is actually deceptively deep, and beyond that, he's just so much fun to watch. It brought me such joy to see him sell songs that he has no business singing that I will gladly give him a pass. Besides, no other performer this season made me laugh so hard with their joke delivery. (My particular favorite of all the Borscht Belt tummler-style jokes is "When you reach our age, you have to make certain adjustments. For instance, sex is different now. Now we play with my tits.")
For the most part, John Rando's production moves swiftly, if lackadaisically. Ellenore Scott's choreography is perfectly tailored to a comedian who happens to be doing a musical, while the visual gags in Scott Pask's set and Jeff Sugg's projections are as funny as the script. But that script is like a reverse-miracle of Chanukah: clocking in at nearly three hours, there's only enough story for half that, and the oil doesn't last.
Sure, a shorter, tighter show would have maximized both the laughs and the emotional core, but once again, does it really matter? I don't think so. The production is way more aware of its crowd than most of the other new musicals this season, and, like the rest of the Hadassah ladies around me who gladly made "We're seeing Mr. Saturday Night on Saturday afternoon!" jokes, I ate it up like an overstuffed deli sandwich, and it didn't even give me gas.
There's a lot to be said for knowing your audience in an industry as volatile as commercial theater, and in that regard, Mr. Saturday Night delivered on all fronts. It's just too bad they didn't sell pastramis on rye at intermission.