Billy Crystal Gives ‘Mr. Saturday Night’ Charm, Laughs, and No Drama
As it turned out, Mr. Saturday Night was perfect to watch on a Sunday afternoon. It’s billed as a musical comedy, but really it feels like an amiable comedy with some songs scattered on it, like icing sugar on a light sponge. Its star Billy Crystal wrote the book with Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; the music is by Jason Robert Brown, and lyrics by Amanda Green.
The show is a ranging 2 hours and 40 minutes (opening Wednesday night at the Nederlander Theatre, booking to Sept. 4), but in the spirit of many good things on stage, it does not dawdle under John Rando’s easy-as-it-goes direction, instead ambling pleasantly and un-challengingly along at its own pace.
Crystal plays a comic, Buddy Young Jr., who was famous way back when. He has a devoted wife, Elaine (Randy Graff), long suffering but not putting up with any of his nonsense, a hangdog-expressioned brother, Stan (David Paymer), who was once his manager and with whom he has a scratchy if loving, very brotherly relationship, and a daughter, Susan (Shoshana Bean), whom he is close to but who also has problems with him too.
The play takes place in the modern day of 1994 and in the past of the 1940s and ’50s, when Buddy rose from playing Borscht Belt Catskills resorts to primetime TV star. The question facing him in the modern day is the perennial one facing celebrities of yesteryear, at least in comedies or dramas about stars of yesteryear: Can Buddy make a comeback? This is made an especially urgent question after Buddy is mistakenly featured in an awards show’s “In Memoriam” segment.
The question of Buddy reclaiming his crown is at least partly down to Annie Wells (Chasten Harmon), a young agent who takes over wrangling his career, and if Mr. Saturday Night ever flirts with an unsurfaced nastiness within Buddy, it is in how he initially treats and speaks to Annie. Harmon is Black, and so the patronizing, dismissive, and plain rude tone Buddy initially takes with her seems especially sour and suspect. But Harmon’s Annie also isn’t about to accept such treatment and—at least from the audience this critic sat among—earned a voluble round of applause when she makes this clear.
“It was a retirement center. They couldn’t laugh. They had to concentrate on breathing. Poor things were exhausted from building the Pyramids.”
— Buddy Young Jr. in ‘Mr Saturday Night’
If you love Billy Crystal, book a ticket. He’s funny, charming, not grandstanding. He has great shtick, a battery of chuckle-inducing one-liners, and we—as the audience—double as Buddy’s audiences in both 1950s primetime and in the retirement communities he is playing in the 1990s (Jeff Suggs’ projections provide a neat first visual joke here).
“It was a retirement center,” he later relates to Elaine of this first gig we watch. “They couldn’t laugh. They had to concentrate on breathing. Poor things were exhausted from building the Pyramids.”
At one of the Borscht Belt resorts he played as a…
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