There were two Danny Kayes. The one familiar to the world was the triple-threat, mid-century entertainer — an actor-singer-dancer specializing in clownish physical comedy and rat-a-tat patter songs. Built up in the mid-’40s by movie producer Samuel Goldwyn to succeed Goldwyn’s fading box-office draw Eddie Cantor, Kaye basically adopted Cantor’s screen persona and de-ethnicized it. He was still the cowardly, nebbishy goof who gets the girl anyway, but minus the Yiddishisms and Semitic features. (For Kaye’s screen debut, Up In Arms, Goldwyn had Kaye’s Durante-size schnozz strategically lit and his locks dyed platinum blond.) The other Danny was the insecure, irascible Hollywood star, a doer of good deeds (he raised millions for UNICEF) who, like his colleague Jerry Lewis, seemed to be a philanthropist more out of concern for his image than genuine altruism. That’s the more dramatically compelling of the two Dannys — the one that Danny and Sylvia never exhibits.
Danny and Sylvia, the new, two-character “musical love story” about Danny and Sylvia Fine Kaye that kicks off the Chip Deffaa Invitational Theatre Festival of new plays on 42nd Street, makes the peculiar choice of presenting the “real” Danny Kaye as the one we know from the screen. In Brian Childers’ often-uncanny portrayal — certainly, the best reason to see the show — the former Danny Kaminsky from Brooklyn really is a stammering moron, the sort who responds to a woman’s attentions with nervous giggles or nearly faints on hearing that he’s about to become a father. This sort of broad shtick is appropriate to the frothy screen comedies that Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose fashioned for Kaye in the ’50s, but as the basis for a convincing stage hero, it won’t do.
Then again, all of Danny and Sylvia feels stuck in the ’50s. A mild, straightforward musical biography rather like the stuff Hollywood churned out 50 years ago, it summons up clichés you may not remember you knew. We open on young Danny in the Far East, gamely singing for his supper with a not-great comic song, “La Vie Paree.” Back in New York he meets the brainy, headstrong rehearsal pianist Sylvia Fine (Perry Payne) while auditioning for a musical revue. She helps him get the part, coaxes him into a summer job at Tamiment (a famous Poconos camp for stage-struck adults), starts writing special material for him, courts him, guides him to stage and screen stardom, rebels when she feels marginalized by his success, splits briefly with him when he prepares a one-man show for the London Palladium, then reconciles with her guy.
That’s where Danny and Sylvia leaves off; the impression given is that the pair lived happily and uneventfully ever after, which it decidedly did not. Don’t look here for any confirmation or denial of the rumors about Danny and Larry Olivier, or an account of the affair Kaye had with Eve Arden, or a depiction of Kaye’s unforgivable stage antics in the Broadway show Two By Two. This is one of those bios where the talented kids seek “the big time” (when was the last time you heard that phrase in this hoary context?), then find that success and marriage make a tricky cocktail.
If you’re wondering why Danny and Sylvia takes such an unadventurous look at its title characters, the program may provide a clue: Bob McElwaine, who wrote the show’s book and lyrics, was Kaye’s publicist for years. He is apparently too much a gentleman to give us an unfiltered portrait of this sometimes-frightening duo and, while his good manners are laudable, he fails to make much of a case for why we should care about Kaye.
The dramaturgy here is strictly Musical Theater Writing 101 — you know, “Cut to the song as quickly as possible, cracking gentle jokes and dropping (anachronistic) names along the way” — and the lyrics are frequently below that level. Never mind the prosody, with lines like “Pri-va-CY’s a lu-xu-RY”; even the correctly accented couplets fail to sing. “We make a wonderful team / We’ve got a wonderful dream,” goes a typical one, continuing: “We are together now / We’ll make it work somehow.” Bob Bain’s pleasant, A-A-B-A melodies are, literally, easy listening, with a ’60s-Broadway eagerness to ingratiate. But when an interpolation intervenes — Sylvia’s own “Anatole of Paris” or the Weill-Gershwin “Tchaikowsky,” which Kaye introduced in Lady in the Dark — you’re painfully aware of the difference between first-class songwriting and amiable time-passers.
Perry Payne rather brilliantly establishes, in her first two minutes of stage time, the contradictory qualities of selfishness, generosity, optimism, and cynicism in Sylvia Fine, but the script gives her nowhere to go from there. A cabaret veteran, Payne knows how to work an audience and can really sing, but by-the-numbers numbers like “Can’t Get That Man Off My Mind” don’t give her much to work with. She does have a nice moment in the second act, a rapid-fire musical account of a Hollywood spouse’s busy schedule.
The bright-eyed Childers, who bears a superficial resemblance to Kaye, fares better. Blithely interacting with the audience (at one point, he improvises a conga line), he conveys something of the virtuosity and unpredictability that endeared Kaye to postwar audiences. In his upper register, Childers sounds alarmingly like Kaye, and his body language — arms flailing like pinwheels, eyes popping, shoulders loose — is an excellent approximation of the original. There’s not a lot that’s fresh or surprising in Danny and Sylvia but the show does boast two assets worth making the trip for: its Danny and its Sylvia.