Mr. Saturday Night review: Billy Crystal brings his nostalgic '90s comedy to Broadway
On stage, Crystal, who reprises his role as curmudgeonly comedian Buddy Young Jr., is performing his Borscht Belt stand-up routine for both the theater audience and an imagined one. He tries to get some participation going by asking one half of the audience to say "oy" and the to say "vey," resulting in an enthusiastic back-and-forth.
It's then that you might realize that even if you're not familiar with the original film, the musical adaptation of Mr. Saturday Night follows its source material pretty closely. That is, it keeps the things that made it fun and unique, such as the references to famous comedians and the many Jewish in-jokes. But it almost goes too heavy on both those elements, which at times can make you feel like you're sitting in a Catskills recreation hall rather than a Broadway theater.
Take the show's opening, a flashback to the golden days of the '40s and '50s (and of Buddy's career) in which we're treated to an old-school NBC commercial shtick before we get to the real stage, a New Jersey retirement home. Brash, outspoken Buddy is trying to pick up the pieces of his failed career and get himself back on track, and things only get worse when he's mistakenly listed in the In Memoriam segment of the 1994 Academy Awards. So Buddy decides to use his brush with death — er, renewed fame — to revitalize his career, which includes getting a new agent (Chasten Harmon, in the role made famous by Helen Hunt) and learning that the comedy of the '50s doesn't quite hit the same all these decades later. Oh, he also has to do a bit of work on himself, because he hasn't exactly treated his family well over the years.
Directed by John Rando (Urinetown, On the Town) and based on the book written by Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel, Mr. Saturday Night bows this week at the Nederlander Theatre. It features a score by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years), lyrics by Amanda Green (Hands on a Hardbody), and choreography by Ellenore Scott (Head Over Heels), who all do their best to bring to life a show that at times feels bogged down with mediocre songs and lackluster staging.
But what the show has trouble selling, the intimate cast mostly makes up for. The three-person "ensemble" chorus, whose members all take on different roles (throughout different decades, no less), is truly delightful and serves as a reminder of the versatile talent Broadway can offer us. Harmon seizes the role of Annie Wells and makes it her own, and Oscar-nominated costar David Paymer, reprising his role as Buddy's pushover brother and manager, Stan Yankelman, brings levity and charm to a character who is constantly living in his sibling's shadow.
The rest of Buddy's family is filled out by Tony winner Randy Graff (City of Angels, Fiddler on the Roof) as his long-suffering wife, Elaine, and a criminally underused Shoshana Bean (Wicked, Hairspray) as his troubled daughter, Susan.
Crystal, who makes his Broadway musical debut (he previously appeared on stage in 700 Sundays, but this is his first song-and-dance appearance), approaches the role he originally created with the same zeal and chutzpah he brought to Buddy in the film. It's clear he's enjoying himself as much as the audience enjoys watching him, and while the show may be far from perfect, Crystal gives his performance 110 percent and manages to find moments of softness and relatability that endear us to the abrasive comedian.
While Crystal and Paymer aren't exactly seasoned singers, their stage presence and easy chemistry make their performances enjoyable. There's also a lot to like when characters get their solo moments, particularly when Graff, Harmon, and Bean take the spotlight — which, sadly, is only once for each of them during the show's 2-hour-and-45-minute runtime.
Bean in particular feels like she gets the short end of the stick; despite her massive talent, she spends most of her time on stage stomping around and arguing with her family. Her only solo song comes in the second act, when she laments about her less-than-starry upbringing. It's an instant reminder of why she's one of Broadway's brightest stars, but it's almost too little too late.
Overall, Mr. Saturday Night is a fun time, but it also feels like it's missing the spark that would make it memorable. Perhaps the show would work better as a 90-minute musical, or even as a play focused on Buddy's comedy routines, which are its high points thanks to Crystal's comedic timing and showmanship.
This is clearly Crystal's stage, and audiences who flock to the Nederlander specifically because of him or because they want to relive the movie magic they found in the early '90s will undoubtably be satisfied by what the show offers. But for those looking for a Broadway show that's livelier than a Catskills performance, you might have a hard time finding it. Grade: B-