Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Danny Kaye Impersonator Center Stage in
Also see Bob's review of The Producers
The story takes us from then David Kaminsky's early adolescence in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn (1920s), to his ensuing days as a Borscht Belt entertainer, onto his success as nightclub entertainer (1930s), his emergence as a Broadway musical star (1939-1941), and his singular career as the star of a series of vastly popular musical comedy screen vehicles produced by Samuel Goldwyn (1943-1948). The last forty years of his life (more than a decade of further success in film, a decline in his film career, followed by extended success in television and a return to Broadway - the Rodgers-Harnick Two By Two), and long years of tireless work on behalf of UNICEF are not portrayed here.
The dramatic underpinning of this musical is Kaye's relationship with his wife and professional partner, Sylvia Fine. Fine wrote songs and specialty material for Kaye and acted as his personal manager. Despite her devotion to him, she is portrayed as a domineering, smothering woman who so suffocated Kaye that she drove him into an affair with comedienne Eve Arden. Arden was professionally closely associated with Kaye from the time that they starred on Broadway (Cole Porter's Let's Face It), appearing as a regular on his radio program and playing major featured roles in most of his films with Goldwyn.
In the second act, Danny leaves Sylvia after the birth of their daughter Dena and flees into the arms of Eve Arden. However, after the failure of a film project, he feels bereft and needy, and returns to Sylvia pledging to be a good and faithful husband and father for the rest of his wife. And so it was, according to The Kid From Brooklyn. Just as it was known to the general public that Kaye was devoted to his daughter, it was also known that, in their later years, Danny and Sylvia were totally estranged and led separate private lives. As to rumors of Kaye's sexually diverse behavior ... well, in the end, all we have are rumors. Still, the happy ending, nice and neat, is forced and contrived. There is a prologue and an epilogue set fifteen years later in 1963 at a TV studio in order to show Kaye displaying devotion to Dena. It is totally unnecessary as is the closing narration, "that we lost Danny in 1987."
There is a cast of four, plus a short appearance by seven-year-old Juliana Martino as Dena in the epilogue. Brian Childers plays Danny, Karen Leone plays Sylvia (and one other role early on), Susie Paplow plays Eve Arden and all the other women, and Ian August plays Kaye's agent and all the other men.
The major problem is that there is lack of honing throughout which gives the entire piece a less than fully professional feel. Is The Kid From Brooklyn a musical play? Is it a biographic concert performance augmented by played out vignettes? Are we hearing a song in performance or is it a character song? How can we feel emotion over Kaye's pre-Sylvia relationship with Rosie (the implied love of his life whom he lost because of his total obsession with his career), when is she shown as a vaudeville sketch comic stereotype of indeterminate age? Why doesn't Danny show any interest in her at all except when she is walks out? Essentially, the first act is a series of unconvincing vaudeville sketches, and the second act is a bittersweet musical play. However, the twain never meet.
The confused set-up undermines the performance of Brian Childers. Childers, who bears a reasonable resemblance to Kaye, does a excellent impersonation of Kaye. Body movement, gestures, vocal inflections are all terrific. Childers is also a first rate singer, and, when he sings, Childers channels Danny Kaye. However, it is an impersonation. However, a question must be asked. "What else do you do, fella?" You see, impersonation is only one aspect of playing this role. Childers is likeable, and acts smoothly. However, there is little range in his acting, and he fails to convey the sad clown who is only happy on stage, as well as the cruelty with which Kaye takes his unhappiness out on Sylvia. Brian Childers' strength is his channeling of the on-stage public persona of Kaye. A biographic play undermines Childers' strengths. It also leads to an evening of mostly truncated songs as director Peter J. Loewy and author Mark Childers (brother of Brian) cram more songs into the piece than the structure can support. For example, Kaye made his Broadway debut in 1939 in the Max Leibman Straw Hat Revue with Alfred Drake and Imogene Coca from which in a Mikado parody, we hear a short chorus of "three little Jews from schul". Please, Forum, I want some more. If author and director continue to move in the direction of creating a a dramatic musical rather than a Danny Kaye performance show, than a more skilled actor rather than an impersonator should be employed.
Susie Paplow goes the sketch comedy route with all of her subsidiary roles (i.e., her Gertrude Lawrence is way over the top bitchy). On the other hand, Eve Arden is essentially colorless, although I don't think the writing gives her any help. There is one particularly inept and, to me, offensive, performance, and it is the work of Ian August. With confidence and bombast, he plays a long series of Jewish males in the same barking, overbearing voice, with the same vaguely Jewish pronunciation and inflection. From Danny's father to Danny's youthful friend and partner, a resort owner, Sam Goldwyn, Lionel Stander and others on to his principal role, Kaye's long time press agent, with or without hat and or cigar, we have a stunning (I was stunned) stereotyped caricature. Unbelievably cruel and vicious to Kaye throughout the years, "you can't fire me, you didn't hire me (Sylvia did)" in the final scene, out of a clear blue sky, he is warm and sympathetic to Kaye. One exception is that for Brooklyn and Bronx bred Moss Hart, August does adopt an affected English accent.
I've saved the best for last. Frankly, I grew up on and love those Danny Kaye movies (including Walter Mitty - after all, who listens to critics?). Although I'm not temperamentally so inclined, I could be part of that southern Florida audience. Yet, as noted, I was not comfortable with the quality level. Now, more than halfway through the second act, Kaye has walked out, and, as the lights dim, Karin Leone as Sylvia begins to sing:
Warm dulcet tones, the caressing of the lyrics, and every word conveying the feeling of longing. And nothing fancy, either. Suddenly encountering the exulted richness of musical theatre made for a bracing jolt of fresh air. Despite the need of all concerned to more clearly define the mixed blessing that is Sylvia Fine, Karin Leone gives a solid, sensible performance throughout. And, when she sings this, her second Rodgers and Hart song of the evening, she raises The Kid From Brooklyn to a higher level. While this rendition clarifies the reason for the unease created by the work around it, it is blameless for it.
Actually, The Kid From Brooklyn has arrived from Stage Door Theatre in Broward County, where it is returning for an additional seven weeks at the end of January. No big surprise.
The Kid From Brooklyn: The Danny Kaye Story continues performances (Wed.-Thurs. 2 PM/ Fri.-Sat. 8 PM/ Sun. 12/31- 9 PM) through December 31, 2006) ay the Forum Theatre Company, 314 Main Street, Metuchen, NJ 08840. Box Office: 732-548-0582; online www.forumtheatrecompany/.
The Kid From Brooklyn: The Danny Kaye Story Book by Mark Childers/
Music and Lyrics by Various/ directed by Peter J. Loewy
For tour schedule: go to : http://www.producersontour.com/