Broadway’s ‘Mr. Saturday Night’ resurrects mid-century Borscht Belt shtick

Adapted from the original 1992 film (which received mixed reviews and didn’t fare well at the box office when it opened 30 years ago), Mr. Saturday Night is now surprisingly a Broadway musical. Written by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel (book), three-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown (music), and Tony nominee Amanda Green (lyrics), the star vehicle once again features Crystal in the lead role of the unreservedly caustic comedian Buddy Young, Jr. – a curmudgeonly has-been who hit the big time with his popular TV show in the 1950s, but is now doing his acerbic stand-up act for elderly residents in retirement homes.

Billy Crystal. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

While at home watching the 1994 Emmy Awards with his wife Elaine, Buddy finds himself included in the “In Memoriam” section of the broadcast, which – since he’s actually not dead (he only killed his career, and his relationships with his brother Stan and his daughter Susan, with his no-holds-barred egomaniacal attitude) – leads to new-found attention and opportunities to resurrect himself in show biz and to heal the wounds he inflicted on his family. Will he succeed, or will his abrasive self-centered personality do him in again? Not really much of a spoiler alert: It’s an old-fashioned musical comedy, so of course it has an unbelievably forced happy ending.

If you’re a long-time Billy Crystal fan or can’t get enough of dated insult comedy and jokes about death, aging, incontinence, excrement, and genitalia, this is the show for you. Crystal, who is not known for Broadway-quality singing or dancing, is in his element doing the stand-up routines that are at the center of the story, directly addressing and interacting with the audience (enlisted to play the audiences at Buddy’s shows), and delivering his stock lines “Don’t get me started,” “Hurt them,” and “See what I did there?” with his impeccable comic timing, milking it for all it’s worth, to get the extended laughs and applause he demands and waits for (which also extends the already long running time of more than two and a half hours).

Directed by Tony Award winner John Rando, the narrative moves back and forth in time and locale (evoked in Scott Pask’s scenic design, lighting by Kenneth Posner, and sound by Kai Harada), between Buddy’s shows at senior centers, reported death, and potential revival in 1994, and flashbacks to his big break, heyday on TV and in the Catskills, and downfall in the 1940s-50s, while also following the subplot of longstanding familial dysfunction. And it includes a score (orchestrations and arrangements by Brown and music direction by David O) of silly song-and-dance routines (with choreography by Ellenore Scott) that recall the early days of television, and forgettable ballads that unnecessarily restate the characters’ obvious feelings, already expressed repeatedly in the dialogue. Maybe a play with music, just supplementing the TV and stand-up comedy routines, would have been more effective (and shorter – “See what I did there?”) than a musical.

Billy Crystal and David Paymer. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The supporting cast features David Paymer reprising his original Oscar-nominated movie role of Stan, Buddy’s estranged elder brother and long-suffering manager who returns from Florida to NYC only because he thinks he’s dead; Randy Graff as Elaine, who encourages him throughout their 45-year marriage, while too often ignoring their daughter and sometimes dreaming of getting away (to “Tahiti” – one of the show’s funnier numbers – and she just happens to have a grass skirt in their New York apartment to pin on Stan while she sings and dances); and Shoshana Bean as the angry and troubled Susan, unemployed and in therapy at the age of 40, to deal with the childhood neglect of her parents (bringing her powerful voice to the song “Maybe It Starts with Me”).

The cast. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, and Mylinda Hull appear in multiple roles, including the trio from Buddy’s TV show, who don over-the-top vintage-style costumes (by Paul Tazewell and Sky Switser) of a hot dog, pack of cigarettes, and box of popcorn for the commercial jingle “What’s Playin’ at the Movies?” And Chasten Harmon is charming as Buddy’s young new agent, clueless about the legendary comics from his (and the now 74-year-old Crystal’s) day to whom he pays homage (with their headshots projected on the background screens, in a video and projection design by Jeff Sugg), but after doing some research, becomes a big proponent of Buddy and his old-school style.

The nostalgia for the humor of a bygone era that permeates Mr. Saturday Night holds appeal for an older target market that grew up with it (as was the case at the performance I attended), while younger generations are more likely not to get it – to which the mostly mean, unlikeable, and not so “Young” Buddy would undoubtedly respond with a loud “Oy vey” (along with a barrage of insults, obscenities, and “go shit yourself” one-liners). Funny.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 35 minutes, including an intermission.

Mr. Saturday Night plays through Sunday, September 4, 2022, at the Nederlander Theatre, 208 West 41st Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $69-179), call the box office at (212) 921-8000, or go online. Everyone must wear a mask at all times when inside.


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