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Danny and Sylvia: A Musical Love Story

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Danny Kaye was a stage and film star of significant wattage for a significant chunk of the twentieth century. With major roles in Broadway musicals and Hollywood films, Kaye was a unique talent the likes of which will most likely never be seen again.

Such a singular star deserves particularly special treatment, but the main message behind Danny & Sylvia: A Musical Love Story is, "Behind every good man there's a woman." If the production of the show at Chashama is to be believed, the woman behind Kaye was even greater than he was.

That could be because the actress playing Kaye's wife Sylvia Fine, Perry Payne, is so charming and delightful that it would take the real Danny Kaye to take the spotlight off of her. She lights up the theater with her smile, can put across a caustic one liner like gangbusters, and can sing the heck out of the score (with lyrics by Bob McElwaine and music by Bob Bain).

Then again, she does have the easier job. Though Fine created a great deal of Kaye's most pointedly original material, her work is virtually unknown today - her songs were for him and for him alone. So Payne must create the role of the fierce-willed, boundlessly creative, yet hopelessly in love Sylvia without much to go on. She fills in every gap and then some.

Brian Childers, as Kaye, doesn't get off so easily. With Kaye's voice and image still present on record and video, it would be impossible, if not irresponsible, to avoid creating this Danny Kaye based significantly on fact.

Childers, while possessing Kaye's intricately extravagant yet controlled hand motions, antic zaniness, and improvisational manner, gets only halfway. He's missing the charisma, the star power that truly makes a star a star. The show's first act finale is the Weill/Gershwin classic "Tschaikowsky," from Lady in the Dark, and Childers is adept at rattling off the numerous Russian composers at lightning speed, but he stops the show primarily because the intermission follows immediately afterward.

Still, he's given the lion's share of stage time, and with good reason. Kaye is the star of this evening. And few people around today knew him better than book writer McElwaine, who spent a number of years as Kaye's publicist. So, while there's little reason to doubt the book's authenticity on most matters, it's curious that someone with such great affection for his subjects would reduce the story of Danny and Sylvia to such a traditional musical formula.

True, Danny & Sylvia: A Musical Love Story is almost a concept musical, staged partially as a book musical and partially as a nightclub act (by Jack Marshall and Jacqueline Manger, with Thommie Walsh as Artistic Advisor), but in every other way it is conventional. We meet Danny, he meets Sylvia, they are cold to each other, they warm up, they fall in love, get married, face near romantic catastrophe, then, at the last possible moment, get back together and pledge to never leave each other again.

All this is done with a good dose of humor and copious amounts of music. Bain and McElwaine have contributed over two dozen songs and musical moments for Danny and Sylvia, covering nearly every aspect of their relationship. But the songs, while all attractive (and, when sung by Payne, much better still), seem, like the book, overly familiar even as they're brand new. Very few of the songs are uniquely spotted, and a number of them could be plucked from Danny & Sylvia and dumped into another show business love story musical with little adverse effect.

The most stirring and distinctive songs, of course, are the ones that Bain and McElwaine didn't write. "Tschaikowsky" and "Anatole of Paris" are particular standouts, but the last song of the evening, "Minnie the Moocher" gives Childers his first real chance to provide audience with a taste of the uniqueness that made Kaye what he was. When the number (of which audience participation is an integral and inescapable part) ends, Sylvia appears onstage, an omnipresent reminder that she was the real secret of his success.

As he turns to acknowledge her, we do, too. If Sylvia was the secret behind Danny Kaye's greatness, we have her to thank for the memories Danny Kaye will never cease providing. Likewise, we have Payne to thank for keeping Danny & Sylvia from being a complete missed opportunity. Both women deserve all the applause and recognition they can be afforded.

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Danny and Sylvia: A Musical Love Story
Through September 22
Chashama Theatre, 135 West 42nd Street
Schedule and Tickets: SmartTix at (212) 206-1515