Whether on film or stage, we’ve seen more than a few stories of an abrasive male comedian’s fall from grace and journey toward self-reinvention (with a lot of love, loss, and joke-cracking along the way). Based on the 1992 movie by the same name, Mr. Saturday Night is another such tale. Comic Buddy Young Jr. (played by Billy Crystal in both the film and stage adaptations) was once on top of the world. Now, his life is falling apart both on stage—and by ‘stage’ I mean the occasional midday retirement home multipurpose room—and at home. After a grave mistake on the Emmy Awards where the production accidentally includes Buddy in the obituaries, (the very much alive) Buddy Young Jr. gets an extra 15-minutes of fame to dust off his jokes and climb his way back into show business. But, as you might expect, Buddy’s quick wit, big mouth, and lack of filter land him in trouble along the way.
While Mr. Saturday Night was not novel in any way, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself at the theater. It was special to see Crystal (now 74) revive his role as Buddy…although his flashbacks playing a teenager felt a little ridiculous this time around. I’ll also admit that, as a shiksa, quite a few of the show’s jokes went over my head. While I certainly laughed a lot, I did feel like I missed out on much of the humor and references from the original film.
The physical comedy and choreographed movement—along with songs by Jason Robert Brown—bring Mr. Saturday Night from the screen to the live stage. The score is more lively and memorable than many shows I’ve seen of late, and the dancing—though kitschy and minimal—is always intentional. In her Broadway choreography debut (well, co-debut, since her other show, the Funny Girl revival, opened just days earlier), Ellenore Scott wasn’t exactly who I had anticipated would spearhead the ‘ography in the musical retelling of this Jewish dramedy film (which got only a 58% rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Yet Scott’s work, though not the main focus of the show, is critical in translating the story to the stage. The movement is comedic, musical, and impressive without being over the top. She weaves in recognizable vaudeville steps, prop work, and even a little tap dance to pay homage to the history of comedy and live performance.
Mr. Saturday Night may just be a vehicle for Billy Crystal, as I can’t imagine the show running anywhere without his name above the marquee. But I also appreciate a limited run like this. Should the goal of every show really be to run as long as possible? Maybe there’s something equally special about those shows that are quite literally there “for a good time and not a long time.” Mr. Saturday Night was nearly full of salt-and-pepper-haired couples who got many more jokes than I. So, that’s just a thought of mine…Not every show has to tour the country or change the landscape of theater. There’s value in those stories that make you laugh and smile and focus on someone else’s messy life other than your own for two-and-a-half hours.