Mr. Saturday Night. Book by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel. Music by Jason Robert Brown. Lyrics by Amanda Green. Directed by John Rando. Choreographed by Ellenore Scott. Arrangements and orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Paul Tazewell & Sky Switser. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner . Sound design by Kai Harada. Video and projection design by Jeff Sugg. Hair design by Charles G. LaPointe. Music director David O. Music coordinator Kristy Norter. Associate director Josiah David.
Just a word of warning. If you think Groucho Marx is the guy who wrote the "Communist Manifesto," or if you have no idea who Phil Silvers, Myron Cohen, Moms Mabley, Shecky Green, Jack Carter, Jack E. Leonard, Milton Berle, or, God forbid, Billy Crystal are, then perhaps you might think about staying home. Or better yet, be a mensch and bring your bubbe and zayde to the show and ask them to explain to you the bits you miss. They'll love you for it, and you may very well find yourself laughing and tearing up along with them and most of the rest of the audience.
Before Mr. Saturday Night was this show (book by Crystal and the writing partners Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel), it was a film (book by Crystal and the writing partners Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel). So, these folks were more than a little familiar with the story they told back in 1992, as well as the story they wanted to tell 30 years later.
The movie related the story of Buddy Young Jr. an egotistical if self-destructive curmudgeon of a stand-up comic who greatly damages his relationship with his brother (played then and now by the splendid David Paymer), and his wife and daughter. Now older, kinder, and perhaps wiser, Crystal and his team have pulled in their claws and softened things so that the damage is no longer beyond repair and the ending is decidedly upbeat, kind of like it was in Crystal's earlier, better received romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally.
Oh, and this time there is singing (kinda sorta) and dancing (ditto), with music by Jason Robert Brown and lyrics by Amanda Green, and easygoing choreography by Ellenore Scott. Brown and Green have been most generous in providing what you might call "designer songs" that do precious little to move the plot forward but which seem to have been written as a gift to each of these specific characters and performers. In truth, Mr. Saturday Night could work just as well without the songs. But then we'd be deprived of the utterly delightful Randy Graff as Buddy's put-upon wife Elaine dreaming of chucking it all and moving to Tahiti, where she could go "barefoot all day long, in a silk sarong, so what's sa rong with that?" (Oh, stop groaning!).
The story moves back and forth in time, between the late 1940s and early 1950s, the years of Buddy's greatest success, and 1994 when his career consists mostly of gigs on cruise ships and at retirement homes; we get to witness one of these gigs, and it is very funny indeed, thanks to Crystal's pitch perfect comic timing.
The years of triumph begin when brothers Stan and Abie Yankleman are working as waiters at a Catskills resort, and Abie (quickly renaming himself Buddy Young, Jr.) is given the opportunity to go on for an injured Milton Berle. He performs the act the brothers used to do for relatives, and he's a hit. Stan, who is too nervous to perform in public, sticks around to serve as Buddy's manager, a one-time gig that turns into a lifelong job. It is also at the resort that Buddy meets his future wife Elaine, never knowing that Stan was already very much infatuated with her.
As Buddy's career takes off, we also witness how he shoots himself in the foot by shooting off his mouth to the wrong people after several years at the top of the game as host of his own TV variety show back in the 1950s. After that, it's an unsteady life of ups and downs, until, just as things seem to be tanking altogether, Buddy is watching the 1994 Emmy Awards on television. And there, during the "In Memoriam" segment, he spots his image and hears his name being announced.
And just like that, once people learn he isn't dead after all, he is suddenly in demand. A top agency seeks to sign him up, and he expects to meet up with the head honcho to discuss future plans. Instead, it is a young new agent, Annie (Harmon), who shows up for a scheduled meeting, and her lack of knowledge about Buddy and his contemporaries gets them off to a very bad start.
We know, ultimately, that things will turn out all right. This is a show by the audience-friendly Billy Crystal, not Sweeney Todd. The main plot may be melodramatic, even corny at times, but mostly Mr. Saturday Night is filled with joy: Crystal's joy of performing for us (the one-liners crackle and gleam), and our joy in watching the performances, especially by Crystal, Graff, and Paymer. Alone or in combination, they are pure theatrical magicians who can make us laugh or shed a tear with a look, or gesture, or a way of phrasing their lines. What more can you ask for?