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Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Brian Childers and Kimberly Faye Greenberg.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

When Danny Kaye claims near the beginning of Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical, which just opened at St. Luke's Theatre, that it took him 10 years to become an overnight success, he's correct in more ways than one. The actor who's actually intoning those words, Brian Childers, has been living with Kaye and this show, in various forms, for practically as long. If lasting success has thus far eluded him, chances are that this latest version of this amateurish, whitewashed take on Kaye's career and marriage to Sylvia Fine will also not do wonders by morning.

I first encountered Robert McElwaine and Bob Bain's shapeless bioshow nearly seven years ago, when it was titled Danny and Sylvia: A Musical Love Story. Although it had a different concept, creative team, book, songstack, and Sylvia, the show ultimately wasn't that much different from what's being presented today: a rickety yet fanciful show-biz story peppered with a mélange of great old songs and mediocre new ones, presided over by Childers mistaking his own smug bravura for Kaye's coy cleverness.

But what the show had then that it's lost since is heart. This is not the fault of the actress now playing Sylvia, Kimberly Faye Greenberg, or even this production's director, Pamela Hall. McElwaine (book and lyrics) and Bain (new music) stripped down this show so much that there's no time left for feelings to develop. This chronicle of connubial bliss and blisters is basically over before it starts, and such a sunny slap-on-the-wrist treatment that deriving anything educational from it is probably a physical impossibility.

Whereas once the show was structured as something of a nightclub act that allowed each half of the pair roughly equal weight, Sylvia has been transformed into such a reactive nonentity the only identifiable remaining romance is Danny's with himself. Even after Sylvia essentially builds his name and maneuvers him into a key featured role in the 1941 musical Lady in the Dark, he still rejects her and downplays her contributions to his life - until a solo engagement at the London Palladium teaches them both that even when they're filling separate theaters, they do their best work together.

It's sweet, but for all intents and purposes it's all about him. That leaves little for Greenberg to sing about: a bit of pushy dialogue here, an uptempo there, some generic torch tunes, and she's out. But that's not a character, that's a walk-on. And in a two-person musical (the only other presence is musical director David Fiorello on piano), the malnourishment of half the cast is a major impediment. Greenberg does what she can, but she's aiming at (and achieving) nonspecifically spunky, which doesn't seem right for the creative and individualistic Sylvia. Plus, although she's technically a decent vocalist, she's hardly a memorable singer, and the moribund songs she's saddled with require a personality she simply can't project.

Not that Danny is particularly realistic or complex either: There are no hints at all about his long-rumored homo- or bisexuality, his womanizing is glossed over (and apparently resolved) during the course of a single song, and the friction between him and Sylvia only runs the gamut from "spat" to "hissy fit." As librettist McElwaine portrays Danny, he's a brilliant talent who knew what he wanted, got it, and then selflessly devoted the rest of his life to his art and the woman he loved. But that's grist for anyone's biographical musical - you get no sense of what made Kaye a unique, irreplaceable talent.

Perhaps Childers could fill in the gaps himself, but he's too busy lilting, mincing, and mugging his way through the show as if he's at a two-hour audition for the leprechaun Og in the upcoming Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow. He overdoes the effeminacy that was Kaye's distinctive trademark, but captures almost none of the bewitching charm it gave him. That causes real problems in the songs, especially those with which Kaye is still closely identified (particularly Kaye's "Anatole of Paris"): Because Childers sounds so little like Kaye to begin with, his lack of these additional qualities makes him appear far more alien than affecting.

This is never more clear than in what's supposed to be the show's triumphant moment. It's opening night of Lady in the Dark at the Alvin, Danny's nervous about his big moment (he has "only 38 seconds" to make his big impression), and it's his cue to go on. So of course he wows the crowd with Ira Gershwin's "Tschiakowsky," a split-second recitation of some three dozen Russian composers' names, and of course he's wonderful. Then the vamp speeds up and he does it again, at light speed and to showstopping effect.

Unfortunately, Childers isn't wonderful. He's studied, yes, and precise (well, most of the time; he smudged a few lyrics on opening night). But he's also lethargic and muddy, just when his performance should most ripple with the carefully articulated energy according any superhuman challenge. Childers does not prove why this is the performance that catapulted Kaye to stardom. He does, however, establish why after so long, he and Danny and Sylvia are still waiting for their own overnight success.

Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical
Through June 28
St. Luke's Theatre, 308 West 46th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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