Will faded comedian Buddy Young, Jr. rejuvenate his career in old age? That plot point, interwoven with family tensions, is the focus of Mr. Saturday Night, a show business musical faithfully adapted from the 1992 critically and financially unsuccessful movie which starred Billy Crystal.
After succeeding as a Catskills comic, the pinnacle of Buddy’s career was hosting a 1955 live television variety show for one season. He then became a Las Vegas comedian, headlining for Judy Garland among other luminaries. Now, in his 70’s, he sullenly performs standup at 11:00 AM in New York-area senior citizen centers. “They’re called nightclubs, not DAY clubs!” During the Emmy Awards telecast, he’s mistakenly included in the In Memoriam montage. This gaffe sparks industry interest in him, resulting in a new agent and tantalizing opportunities.
Mr. Crystal recreates his film role of Buddy here with his sterling characterization of a frustrated almost-made-it performer having deepened over 30 years. Crystal has been a major entertainment fixture in all media since the 1970’s. His superior comic timing, singing skills, dramatic depth and engaging persona remain impeccable; this enjoyable star stage turn will enchant his admirers.
However, anyone else may find this decent show to be a tired affair which just about sustains its two-and-half-hour running time. The memory-piece book by Crystal, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel is based on their screenplay which ranges from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. It intends to be a loving tribute to a bygone show business era and fitfully succeeds at that. The schmaltz-laden dramatic writing never really rises above the rudimentary, rendering the events and conflicts with patness and clichés. Still, it offers choice roles that are marvelously performed by the other cast members.
A Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for the movie, David Paymer as Young’s older brother and former manager also repeats his original part and is just as effectively poignant during this go round. Tony-Award winning Broadway veteran Randy Graff is wonderous as Buddy’s lovingly patient wife, excelling with a lively solo number. As their troubled daughter, the vivacious Shoshana Bean commands the stage with two pungent songs. Chasten Harmon sparkles as Buddy’s savior agent. Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales and Mylinda Hull’s sharp portrayals of multiple subsidiary roles all delight.
All the characters are visually realized by costume designers Paul Tazewell and Sky Switser’s neat period and contemporary creations. Hair and wig designer Charles LaPointe provides lustrous brown and gray wigs for Crystal, allowing him to periodically switch between being the young and old Buddy.
Mr. Saturday Night’s score is tuneful. Composer Jason Robert Brown music is bouncy and Amanda Green’s lyrics skillfully combine wit, emotion and occasionally Yiddish. Director John Rando’s solid staging makes for a smooth presentation. Highlights of Ellenore Scott’s retro choreography joyfully conjures up vintage television variety show-style production numbers of the 1950’s. That past mood is amplified by lighting designer Kenneth Posner’s crisp work and Jeff Sugg’s nostalgic video and projection design. Scenic designer Scott Pask’s artfully moving components allow for swift scene transitions and momentum. Kai Harada’s sound design finely balances the spoken, sung and musical portions.
Like the movie, this musical of Mr. Saturday Night isn’t great. It’s an innocuous diversion with some bite and a showcase for Billy Crystal.
Mr. Saturday Night (open run)
Nederlander Theater, 208 West 41st Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.mrsaturdaynightonbroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission