Did the world really need a weak musical adaptation of Billy Crystal’s little-remembered 1992 film comedy “Mr. Saturday Night” – even if it meant Crystal reprising the role he played in the film and, for better or worse, making his singing debut?
In “Mr. Saturday Night,” Crystal plays Buddy Young Jr., an aging and egocentric comedian who, after going from hosting his own late night TV show to playing retirement communities, receives a last chance to revive his career and settle longstanding family issues.
It nostalgically pays tribute to mid-century Jewish comedians and the Borscht Belt summer resorts where they played such as Kutsher’s and Grossinger’s, as seen in an extended flashback sequence where Buddy suddenly goes from waiter to headliner.
Crystal deserves credit for branching out as a performer and spearheading the musical adaptation, which has music by Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years,” “Parade”) and lyrics by Amanda Green (“Hands on a Hardbody”), and a supporting cast that includes David Paymer (who reprises his Oscar-nominated performance from the film as Buddy’s brother/manager), Tony winner Randy Graff (as Buddy’s wife), and Shoshana Bean (as Buddy’s estranged adult daughter).
Decades ago, it was not unusual for musicals to be built around non-singing (or barely-singing) comedians like Groucho Marx (“Animal Crackers”), Phil Silvers (“Do Re Mi”), Sid Caesar (“Little Me”), and Jackie Gleason (“Take Me Along”). That being said, few of these shows stand the test of time.
While Crystal and the cast are droll and endearing, “Mr. Saturday Night” (directed by John Rando with an especially small cast for an old-fashioned-style musical comedy) is pretty dull, slow, and schmaltzy. The gentle score, much of which was custom-built for a leading man with a limited vocal range, lacks the flavor and bite of Brown and Green’s best work. A lively establishing song performed by Bean in the first act seems to have come out of an entirely different, more contemporary, more interesting show.
Throughout “Mr. Saturday Night,” I kept thinking about how a century ago, Al Jolson (while performing in his own star vehicle musical comedies) would frequently break the fourth wall and ask audience members whether they would rather watch the rest of the show or have him give a concert of his hit songs, thus sending the rest of the cast home early.
If Crystal (who previously starred on Broadway in the one-man show “700 Sundays”) stopped “Mr. Saturday Night” in its tracks and offered to do stand-up comedy instead, either as himself or even in the guise of Buddy Young Jr., which do you think the audience would pick?
Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., mrsaturdaynightonbroadway.com.