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Mr. Saturday Night

Billy Crystal                    photos by Matthew Murphy


Mr. Saturday Night

                                     By Marc Miller

Billy Crystal as a comic who lives for his audience. This is not a stretch for him. The joy that emanates from the Nederlander stage in Mr. Saturday Night, and make no mistake, it does emanate, has as much to do with familiarity and nostalgic goodwill as the material itself, which has its frowzy aspects. The theatergoers, judging from their looks, are largely familiar with the source material and don’t want it muddled with much, just add a few songs and stir. They’ve come to relive who they were 30 years ago and see Billy Crystal go through well-worn paces, ad lib a little, display spot-on timing, and offer a lesson in being a top banana an old term, and one afforded a rapidly diminishing number of comedians. These objectives he accomplishes handily.

Calling the evening old-fashioned is putting it mildly. Mr. Saturday Night was a popular but hardly epochal 1992 comedy-drama, a vehicle for Crystal to strut his comic stuff as Buddy Young Jr., and maybe wring a tear or two. (Even today, it’s only a 5.9 on the IMDB.) The screenwriters, Crystal and Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, have returned for the stage outing, as has Oscar-nominated David Paymer, as Buddy’s hapless older brother and manager. They haven’t so much adapted the original as folded song cues into it, for which Jason Robert Brown (music) and Amanda Green (lyrics) provide a capable, unspectacular retro score. A more than competent cast takes up roles previously assumed by Helen Hunt, Jerry Orbach, and others, and unchallenging sentiment and hilarity are the order of the day. Before Mr. Saturday Night, Ganz and Mandel were known mainly as sitcom writers, for the likes of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, and Mr. Saturday Night plays like a very well-wrought sitcom, with songs.

A person wearing a purple suit and holding a microphone

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Once again, we’re in the early ‘90s, and Buddy, having witnessed his own false demise in an obituary tribute on the Emmys, is eager to see if he can parlay that misinformation into a revival of his faltering standup career (he’s been reduced to Saturday morning routines in retirement home rec rooms, prompting a surfeit of geezer jokes). Back in the day he headlined a CBS Saturday night variety hit, till an on-air breakdown led to cancellation and a downward career spiral. Now, aided by his unbelievably patient and tolerant wife Elaine (Randy Graff), brother Stan, and enthusiastic young talent rep Annie (Chasten Harmon), he gets a shot at bigger things, notably a juicy role in a movie by a popular director (Brian Gonzales) who’d seen Buddy in his Catskills debut some 50 years ago. Will Buddy triumph, and will he perhaps veer away from the relentless self-centeredness that has poisoned his relationships with wife, brother, and underachieving daughter Susan (Shoshana Bean)? What do you think?

Very little in the way of surprises, then, but that’s not what we’re here for. One happy surprise: The 74-year-old Crystal and 67-year-old Paymer, in flashbacks as Catskills resort workers, play their twentysomething selves, and do so charmingly. An unhappy one: Buddy’s on-air breakdown, a prime opportunity for expanding the screenplay and providing some actual onstage drama, is described but not dramatized. Mostly, the writers serve up sketches and set pieces (one very funny one: Buddy on The $25,000 Pyramid, spewing out inside-showbiz clues his partner couldn’t possibly understand). Then, in the second act, they concentrate on Make Us Care moments, about Buddy’s halting efforts to humanize himself, Elaine’s struggle to emotionally support him while facing up to his numerous failings, and Susan’s dealings with her vastly imperfect parents. It’s efficient storytelling, we do ultimately care a little, and it all feels somewhat rote.

The engine, of course, is Crystal, and he’s wonderfully up to the job. How many other living comic actors have the DNA of their estimable predecessors, the Bert Lahrs and Phil Silverses and Bobby Clarks? Nathan Lane, Michael McGrath, you could make a case for Lewis J. Stadlen, and that’s about it. Crystal loves raunch, and he makes the most of a good recurring gag, subverting audience expectations and gloating, “Did you see what I did there?” He’s ably assisted by, especially, Graff, who captures the conflicting motivations complicating Elaine’s soon-to-be-golden years, and Bean, making a rounded character out of a set of neglected-offspring cliches. Gonzales, Jordan Gelber, and Mylinda Hull furiously change costumes as Buddy’s writers and a whole smorgasbord of other characters, and probably end up working harder than anybody else.

It's not a cast album you’ll want to run out and buy, but Amanda Green rhymes accurately (and sometimes predictably: In this context, when you hear “Eddie Fisher,” you know “pisher” can’t be far behind), gets an A for neatness, and knows how to set up and execute a punchline. Good work, reflecting the influence of her dad, Adolph, and he’d be proud of her. Brown delivers the pastiche sounds of the ‘40s to the ‘90s, and also gets an A for neatness; he just doesn’t seem, compared with the likes of Parade and The Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years, terribly emotionally invested in what’s going on.

It’s as cheap-looking a big Broadway musical as you’re likely to find, with a cast of eight, an orchestra of six, and a set, by Scott Pask, that would seem skimpy in a high school auditorium. Paul Tazewell and Sky Switser’s costumes compensate somewhat, and Jeff Sugg, as is becoming a trend, provides projections that partly make up for the visual paucity in front of them. John Rando directs for, as one song title goes, “Timing,” though that particular number shows a distinct lack thereof.

Crystal got an enormous hand on his intro, kept eliciting disproportionate audience adulation, and followed the inevitable standing ovation with 15 minutes of standup and Q&A, extending a slender story’s running time to almost three hours. He’s a pro, and if Mr. Saturday Night feels predictable and retro in every respect, those are qualities we associate with comfort food. In these troubled times, comfort food seems a necessity for many. As such, Mr. Saturday Night serves it up with panache.

Mr. Saturday Night
Broadway musical
Playing at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St.
Open-ended run