By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
From the first few lines in the opening number (“We’re Live”) of “Mr. Saturday Night,” it is apparent this is a throwback to Broadway spectaculars of the past. With a huge crescendo of Jason Robert Brown’s music and Amanda Green’s incisive lyrics, the story of Buddy Young, the popular TV celebrity of yesteryear, is brought to life. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say, is brought to death in the very funny book by star and Tony Award winner Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel.
We soon move from the buildup of a live 1950s-era TV introduction to a hilarious scene at a retirement home in 1994 as comedian Buddy Young, “the kamikaze of comedy,” prepares to entertain the very staid retirees. Crystal, as Buddy Young is confronted by what could very well be his own future. The audience members become the home’s retirees, staring back at him while he throws zingers.
“Hey, come on. I know you’re out there – I can hear you decomposing,” he cries out in desperation. “I know some of you are sad. You’re still sitting shiva for Lincoln…”
While trying to entertain the crowd with his theme song “A Little Joy” from his former Saturday night TV show, Young is exasperated at the lack of a response. He finally goes blue, suggesting one of his female audience members had been intimate with a biblical figure before he exits.
In the pivotal scene that follows, he returns home to his wife Elaine (Tony Award winner Randy Jaffe), Young is watching the Emmy Awards, but is shocked to find out the Television Academy thinks he has died. A clip of him from his earlier TV program is shown.
“Look! They killed me!” he shrieks and as Elaine reenters the scene and reacts, Young angrily yells at the TV set: “I’m not dead, you bastards!”
Almost immediately, the calls of consolation start coming in fast and furious. Elaine can’t get a word in as Buddy’s older brother and former manager Stan Yankleman (David Paymer) calls in to ask how it happened.
As Elaine, Graff says into the telephone, “I was in the kitchen, he was watching TV, one second he was fine, then I heard screaming.” Stan thinks the worst and rushes to take care of the funeral.
Of course, when he knocks on the door of his former client and brother, Stan is not prepared to see a living Buddy before his eyes. He faints straight away as Buddy for a moment believes the shock may have killed him.
Thus, the two brothers, who it turns out happen to have a long history, are reintroduced to each other through “death.”
The unlikely mixup turns out to be a minor character of much less renown, a Korean with the last name Jung, but it begins a chain of events that leads to the hilarious conceit of the show.
Crystal’s brilliant one-liners are the foundation for the show, but the heart of the book is the carefully constructed relationships he attempts to restore as his career begins to show signs of life. Aside from the constant, unwavering support of his wife, his estranged daughter Susan Young is played by Shoshana Bean. Bean’s tender portrayal of a woman attempting to put the pieces of her life together while in recovery is remarkable and her singing of the songs “There’s a Chance” and “Maybe It Starts with Me” solidify her character and leave little doubt as to her vocal wizardry. (She was, of course, famously cast previously as Elphaba, so perhaps that term is appropriate.) Jason Robert Brown’s music and Amanda Green’s lyrics are typically light and fluffy comedic pieces for the other characters such as “Timing.” But with Shoshana’s troubled past and her inability to feel she is worthy of her father’s pride, they cobbled together truly magnificent selections that advance her character and give the show much more depth.
Throwing out punchline after punchline, he crystalizes their relationship by remembering the day of her birth. “Nothing has changed,” he muses. “The first time I held her in my arms, she threw up on me.”
In addition to restoring his relationship with his brother, his wife and his daughter, Buddy Young also has to engage with a new person in his life, Annie Wells (Chasten Harmon). Incredulous as it is, Annie believes in Buddy and she strives to help him make a comeback. She has been so taken aback from an initial meeting between the two of them that she goes back to study just who Buddy and these other named comedians he threw out like Phil Silvers are. She returns with a renewed respect.
But just as when he was pronounced dead by the Television Academy, Buddy is more concerned about his being remembered as being funny rather than actually being alive. He bemoans the clip they chose to remember him by because it wasn’t that funny. When given an opportunity by Annie to do a commercial for adult diapers, he cracks and deliberately (and hilariously) sabotages the bit.
The resolution of all the relationships and the possible reinvigoration of Buddy Young’s career as a comedian have their way in Act II with Stan bemoaning loss in “Broken” and Elaine and Buddy reflecting on the life they’ve shared in “My Wonderful Pain.”
Supporting cast members Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales and Mylinda Hull give constant support to the leading players. They represent several key figures in Buddy and Stan’s life as well as others from the period of the 1940s and 1950s and into the “present-day” period in which is it set in 1994.
This is a show not to be taken lightly. Director John Rando succeeds in letting the cast and book shine through and Ellenore Scott’s choreography is beautifully tendered.
With Billy Crystal as the star, tremendous female leads, incredible music, arrangements and orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown and lyrics by Amanda Green, this is a show that should not to be missed.
“Mr. Saturday Night“ (Two hours with a 15-minute intermission) ended its run at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st Street in New York City, on September 4, 2022.