Billy Crystal is roving the stage, leading an “oy vey!” call-and-response. There is no exclamation more apt for “Mr. Saturday Night,” the moth-eaten cardigan of a new musical now in residence at the Nederlander Theatre. At first, kvetching seems to be encouraged with a knowing wink. We meet Buddy as a washed-up comedian playing retirement homes in his less-than-golden years, joking that his audience is half dead.
But there is precious little pulse throughout “Mr. Saturday Night,” a double shot at redemption for both Buddy and his marquee creator. When Buddy mistakenly shows up in the Emmys’ In Memoriam segment, he decides to make another go as a funnyman, wrestling with pride, self-doubt and an industry that’s moved on. Crystal’s return to playing the part of Buddy, from the 1992 flop film he also co-wrote and directed, likewise seems to be a personal creative mission.
And the beloved “SNL” alum and nine-time Oscar host is certainly at home in front of a crowd, an expert with gotcha zingers. His smiling eyes and warm deadpan are like inviting divots in a worn-out loveseat. There would be worse ways to go than kicking back in an all-purpose room to a gently acerbic set from Buddy. Fans of Crystal, previously on Broadway in the memoiristic “700 Sundays,” may find at least some measure of diversion here. But this is not a one-man set.
“Mr. Saturday Night” is a study in showbiz ego. (“I suck up all the oxygen,” Buddy finally comes to admit.) But Buddy’s narcissism also saturates the script, drowning out the potential development of other characters. Though there’s a sweetness to the endurance of Buddy’s marriage, his wife (Randy Graff) is sketched only in relation to him, as is Buddy’s long-overshadowed brother and manager (David Paymer, reprising his Oscar-nominated turn from the film). Even an underbaked subplot about Buddy’s strained relationship with his daughter (Shoshana Bean) winds up being all about him. (Of course, what she wants is daddy’s approval.)
Most egregious is that Buddy’s young agent Annie (Chasten Harmon) becomes a tool for proving the value of legacy and respecting the (mostly white and mostly male) forefathers who forged one. When she takes a meeting with Buddy, he rattles off a list of comic greats that Annie — a hungry and successful comedy agent — somehow can’t identify. So she does her homework, apologizes and asks Buddy to let her help him, though he can never seem to remember her name. “If you’re like me you’ve worked and waited/chronically underestimated,” she sings, seeming to liken her experience as a Black woman to Buddy’s as a mediocre attention magnet. It’s proof that casting can seldom be colorblind, and doesn’t make an already unlikable Buddy any more endearing.
Outside its hobbling Buddy-centrism, the book, co-written by Crystal with the movie’s screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, is chock-full of corny punchlines that hit the same targets again and again. Buddy’s borscht-belt humor is grounded and from the gut, with wisecracks about aging and bodily functions. But there’s low-hanging fruit, and then there’s the stuff already decomposing into fertilizer. How many jokes can one make about shit showing up in the wrong place?
Composer Jason Robert Brown and lyricist Amanda Green face the unenviable task of drumming up music where little emotional heartbeat exists, and the results are flat and forgettable. There are songs where a line or two of dialogue would suffice, as when Buddy’s daughter announces she has a job interview, and few numbers that reveal much beyond what’s been said. Crystal can charm his way through a tune, but it’s as though the others, and Bean in particular, are made to hold back so as not to outshine him. So why turn “Mr. Saturday Night” into a musical at all?
This staging from director John Rando doesn’t have an answer. Its dinner-theater quality may be a nod to Buddy’s early days on the circuit and to his variety show. But if there’s a thin line between schlocky and self-consciously old-fashioned, this production mugs and shimmies right over it (choreography from Ellenore Scott is especially hokey). An assortment of floating panels display photographic projections (the Friars Club, Rockefeller Center), a slick play for realism that does little to ground the story (set design is by Scott Pask, video and projection design by Jeff Sugg).
The production’s most evocative visuals are enlarged photos of a star in his prime, Crystal in a tux with that dazzling smile, or caught in a goofy expression. The archival stills show up now and then, stoking the nostalgic fondness that powered “Mr. Saturday Night” onto Broadway. And while Crystal clearly proves he can still light up a stage, the lasting trail of his legacy has already been blazed.
“Mr. Saturday Night” opened at the Nederlander Theatre on April 27, 2022.
Review Photo: Matthew Murphy
Creative: Book by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; Music by Jason Robert Brown; Lyrics by Amanda Green; Based on the Castle Rock Entertainment motion picture ‘Mr. Saturday Night’ written by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel; Based on the motion picture ‘Mr. Saturday Night’ by Castle Rock Entertainment; Based on a concept by Billy Crystal; Music orchestrated by Jason Robert Brown; Music arranged by Jason Robert Brown; Directed by John Rando; Choreographed by Ellenore Scott; Scenic Design by Scott Pask; Costume Design by Paul Tazewell and Sky Switser; Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner; Sound Design by Kai Harada; Video and Projection Design by Jeff Sugg.
Producers: Produced by James L. Nederlander, Face Productions, Inc., Hunter Arnold, Michael Cohl, TEG Dainty, Candy Spelling, Steve Traxler, Marc David Levine, Caiola Productions, Crossroads Live, Jamie deRoy, Roy Furman, Arny Granat, Grove Entertainment, John Gore Organization, Wolf Gutterman, Van Kaplan, Larry Magid, Peter May, Carl Moellenberg, Beth W. Newburger, Albert Nocciolino, Eva Price, Iris Smith, The Shubert Organization, Howard Tenenbaum and Barry & Fran Weissler.
Cast: Billy Crystal, Shoshana Bean, Randy Graff, Chasten Harmon, David Paymer, Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales and Mylinda Hull.