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Chicago by John Olson

The Kid from Brooklyn
Mercury Theatre

Also see John's review of The Lady With All the Answers

The Kid From Brooklyn
Christina Purcell, Brian Childers, Adam LeBow and Karin Leone
I can think of a number of reasons to write a bio-musical of a performer: as a tribute to the performer's work, a history of past show business eras, a detailing of the combination of talent, drive and luck that allows some individuals to rise to extraordinary levels of recognition and success; and an examination of the challenges that fame places on the pursuit of normal human needs like relationships and family. Writers Mark Childers and Peter J. Loewy take on all of these goals with this musical biography of Danny Kaye, and to some degree satisfy on all of them. Whether The Kid from Brooklyn leaves you wanting more, or wanting less, may depend on your relative levels of interest in the performances of Danny Kaye, entertainment history or pop psychology.

In the fragmented world of entertainment, it's hard to remember how widespread was the popularity of mid-20th century performers like Danny Kaye—a singer, comic actor and comedian in an era when movie musicals were mainstream, film comedies even more so and a hit prime time network TV show was seen by 20-30% of all households on a given evening. His is a fascinating case for study of the stage and screen world of the '40's and '50s. After an apprenticeship in the Borscht Belt from his teens through his mid-twenties, he spent four years working on Broadway before Hollywood scooped him up to help feed the demand for film musicals. Secondary characters in his biography include the likes of Billy Rose, Moss Hart, Gwen Verdon, Cole Porter, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and it's fun to see glimpses of their backstage lives.

Few people under age 60 are going to be very familiar with Kaye's routines, as most of his films, save White Christmas, get little play these days. The Kid from Brooklyn gives a lot of time to numbers like "Tchaikovsky" (the song from Lady in the Dark that made him a Broadway sensation) and "Bel Mir Bist Du Schoen," from a 1946 film called The Kid from Brooklyn. The level of enjoyment one gets from these numbers may depend a lot on what one brings to them. I didn't know many of the songs performed here, so they didn't simply trigger memories of performances I'd enjoyed. I have a strong memory of Kaye, though, and while Brian Childers is frequently amazingly spot-on as the performer, I didn't find Childers to be as consistent an impersonator as one might hope for. In fairness, Kaye was an original, and with a speaking voice that's hard to imitate. Childers deserves kudos, though, for the technical skill with which he performs Kaye's material, most notably the tongue-twisters like "Tchaikovsky," which claims to name 54 Russian composers in 38 seconds. For my taste, the heavy reliance on comedy songs of the '30s through '50s is a bit much, particularly under the manic and presentational tone established by Loewy's direction. Those who would come to this show out of reverence for Mr. Kaye would probably enjoy the numbers more.

Kaye's life story is told in the very traditional structure of the show business biography—mostly as a flashback. Just like Funny Girl's Fanny, Danny sits before his dressing table mirror and reflects on his life. The action opens on the ending of an episode of Kaye's 1963-1976 TV variety show, as wife Sylvia Fine informs him of the death of the partner with whom he performed in the Catskills. The biography that follows presents a fairly balanced picture of the man and his longtime wife. Danny's initial naiveté and innocence becomes less charming as it evolves into the Peter Pan syndrome evidenced by his difficulty in managing his own business affairs, his habit of showing up late for appointments, and his infidelities to his wife. An affair with Eve Arden is depicted at length and one with Sir Laurence Olivier is strongly suggested. Brian Childers effectively shows Kaye's inner conflicts sometimes with no more than a glance. A moment when Kaye agrees to conceive the couple's first child so that wife Sylvia will be kept at home, freeing him up for dalliances on the road, is simple and a little chilling.

The marriage of Kaye and Fine is drawn in a way that made me want to learn more about it. Fine was Kaye's de facto manager, according to this script, negotiating his deals, writing or at least choosing his materials and making all his career decisions. Kaye is shown to resent this level of control even as he takes advantage of it. Karin Leone is a tough, hard-edged Sylvia, but it seems there's a meatier role in Sylvia somewhere. Might Ms. Fine have had a little more of the Madam Rose in her?

All the remaining roles are played by Christina Purcell and Adam LeBow. Ms. Purcell is especially effective in her imitations of Kitty Carlisle and Gertrude Lawrence, while her Eve Arden is effective in its suggestion of that actress without attempting a literal impersonation. LeBow's characters, while some of them major historical figures (Billy Rose, Cole Porter, Moss Hart), are lesser known as personalities and harder to compare either favorably or not to the real things. LeBow relies, though, on two stereotypes the hard-boiled impresarios like Billy Rose and the snobbish likes of Hart, Porter and Olivier.

This sweeping historical scope is presented on a simple unit set designed, along with the lighting, by Andrew Myers. A full complement of period costumes by Shon Le Blanc establishes the eras and locales, and helps distinguish LeBow and Purcell's many characters from each other. Special mention must be given as well to the wig designs for Purcell by Howard Leonard and Rick Burns.

The Kid from Brooklyn is a carefully researched, lovingly written and energetically performed piece that delivers a lot, even if the pieces don't entirely add up to more than the sum of their parts.

The Kid from Brooklyn will be performed Wednesdays at 2pm, Thursdays at 8pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm; and Sundays at 2pm through August 24th, 2008 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. Tickets are available by phone at 773.325.1700 or online at www.thekidfrombrooklynmusical.com.


Photo: Johnny Knight

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-- John Olson



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