curtain call

Billy Crystal delivers a comedy master class in Broadway’s ‘Mr. Saturday Night’

Billy Crystal
Billy Crystal in Mr. Saturday Night. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Welcome to Curtain Call, our mostly queer take on the latest theater openings on Broadway and beyond.

The Rundown:

Move over, Dave Chappelle. Legendary comedian Billy Crystal proves that to be funny is to be human in a musical adaptation of the 1992 film Mr. Saturday Night. Featuring music by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years), lyrics by Amanda Green, and a laugh-out-loud book by Crystal, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, the musical is a rare opportunity to see the 74-year-old legend in action — and he doesn’t miss a beat.

No Tea, No Shade:

After being mistaken for dead on the Emmy Awards “In Memoriam” tribute and playing one too many gigs at the local retirement center, Buddy Young, Jr. (Crystal), hopes to resuscitate his waning career and, in the meantime, repair relationships with his former manager and younger brother (David Paymer), wife (Randy Graff), and daughter (Shoshana Bean).

Young reluctantly elicits the help of a junior talent agent (Chasten Harmon) to get back in the game, but the whole set-up is really just an excuse to watch Crystal hold a giggling and guffawing audience in the palm of his hand. True, the jokes target a geriatric crowd with a sense of humor. In one bit, he says, “By the way, Moses called. He said you were a great f*ck,” and later, when filming a commercial for adult incontinent pads, goes off script, joking, “But with these new ‘Secures,’ I feel like a horse … which means I sh*t when I walk!”

Related: ‘Who are you now?’ ‘Funny Girl’ and a Broadway revival’s identity crisis

Mr. Saturday Night
The company of Mr. Saturday Night. Photo by Matthew Murphy

But if seven seasons of Grace and Frankie have proved anything to a wider audience, it’s that comedy doesn’t have an expiration date. It’s also true that pop culture memories are fleeting at best, and Crystal’s character doesn’t miss the opportunity to call out his new rep’s lack of historical knowledge, name-dropping Myron Cohen and Moms Mabley, among others, saying not only were they comedians, “they were artists.’

If Mr. Saturday Night hits one clunker, it’s that it’s a musical. Brown and Green’s score is entertaining enough, and who can resist another former Elphaba by way of Bean belting out a couple of thrilling but unnecessary numbers? Pocket size by Broadway standards, the three-person ensemble (Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, and Mylinda Hull) is equally as entertaining. With Crystal taking center stage most of the time, it’s a hard act to follow, but they take cues from a master and don’t miss a beat. But the music is like a forgettable opening act after you’ve watched the headliner.

Let’s Have a Moment:

In Mr. Saturday Night‘s second act, Young’s agent finally gets him a big audition (albeit for a role that Walter Matthau turned down — the show takes place between the mid-1950s to ‘90s). The scene, meant to be in-process, doesn’t drop the show’s funniest punch line or double-take but shows the breadth of Crystal’s 50-plus-year acting career.

“I’m like … A museum of comedy. You want takes, you go to the ‘take’ exhibit. You want faces, you go to the ‘face’ pavilion. You want timing, I’m a Swiss watch,” his character pleads to the director, then later telling his agent, “Do yourself a favor – represent the living.”

Mr. Saturday Night
Billy Crystal, left, and David Paymer, right, in Mr. Saturday Night. Photo by Matthew Murphy

The Last Word:

Mr. Saturday Night couldn’t be more different from this season’s other new musicals, including Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Strange Loop. But Crystal’s performance may be reason enough to head to the Nederlander Theatre.

“Funny thing about dreams is — you can chase after them your whole life,” says Crystal’s character in a moment of reconciliation. “You keep chasing them and chasing them, but what’s really important is right in front of you and sometimes you don’t see it, you know?”

Those witnessing Crystal onstage will recognize the fragility of dreams and his desire to return, once again, to a Broadway stage.

Mr. Saturday Night is playing at the Nederlander Theatre through September 4, 2022.