Launched in 2015 by veteran producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley, the intention of online platform BroadwayHD is to replicate the Broadway experience for those who do not have access to the Great White Way. Added to initial listings like She Loves Me are now hundreds of shows including family favorites like Kinky Boots and classics from the Royal Shakespeare Company. The service provides a comfortable entry for those who don’t want to gamble $125 per person to introduce family members to the theater as an entertainment option.
Their latest addition is Mr. Saturday Night, a musical comedy starring the always amiable Billy Crystal who also serves as Executive Producer. Filmed live at the Nederlander Theater on August 31, 2022, the production is based on Crystal’s self-directed 1992 movie of the same name. It follows the career of Buddy Young Jr., a fictional Borscht Belt comedian who rose to stardom hosting a Saturday evening television variety show. His reputation in tatters after an on-air incident, he is now performing before disengaged nursing home residents. But his mistaken inclusion in the “In Memoriam” portion of the Emmy’s brings him much needed attention from a surprising source.
Whether this offering leaves you kvelling or plotzing will depend in large part on the level of admiration you hold for classic comics such as Phil Silvers, Totie Fields and Buddy Hackett. (Thanks to YouTube, this admiration needn’t be restricted to those of a certain age.) The revised script by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel doesn’t solve the problem of the original film and Buddy remains a character that is hard to like much less root for. However, Mr. Crystal’s live performance allows the audience to bathe in his suburb timing and delivery. In his hands, even the broadest of jokes makes it easy to admire the craft even if it’s not your preferred style of humor. It should be noted that some of the material is quite blue and may not be suitable for younger family members.
Crystal has surrounded himself with a terrific, energetic cast. Shoshana Bean lends her soaring expressive voice to the role of Buddy’s struggling daughter, Susan, while Randy Graff brings deep dimension to Buddy’s loyal-to-a-fault wife Elaine. The reliable David Paymer reprises his Oscar nominated performance in the more stereotypical role of jealous brother, Stan. Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, and Mylinda Hull do a lot of heavy lifting playing several roles apiece and giving variation to each. While the charming Chasten Harmon overflows with warmth as Annie Wells, a young and exuberant agent trying to help Buddy rise again. In a wonderful twist on the original casting, the adults play their teenage selves.
As is true with most streaming productions, the show has two directors. Tony winner John Rando handled the stage production and Matthew Diamond translated it for the home screen. Sometimes presenting camera angles that would not be seen by a live audience, Diamond— who previously directed The Wiz Live for NBC — employs a style more similar to a television show than a recreation of a theatrical experience. But this is a musical that relies more on exchanges among two or three characters and less on big production numbers. Clever projections by Jeff Sugg that enhance a set designed by Scott Pask are well incorporated by the camera work. And Diamond’s more intimate framing allows home viewers to observes details such as the framed photo of Crystal and his Comic Relief cohorts on the walls of the Friar’s Club set as well as enjoy the moving facial expressions of the entire ensemble. There are also moments when the live audience is included in a shot and their enthusiastic responses are contagious. Putting the end credits over individual actor’s faces is a nice touch. Uptempo music by Jason Robert Brown with lyrics by Amanda Green supply enjoyable interludes in the storytelling. The players’ annunciation is excellent, but there are easy-to-read captions available.
Though modestly produced by Broadway standards, Mr. Saturday Night is lifted by Billy Crystal’s generally appealing performance. And the central theme of second chances is given unusual spin. Runtime is two and a half hours, though Act II is clearly marked if you need a stretch break. Exclusive to BroadwayHD subscribers, this production was made possible by a special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures. Visit https://www.broadwayhd.com to sign up for a special holiday offer of $99.99 for one year (available through December 8) or dip your toe in their stream for $11.99 a month. The fees make it possible to offer the entire catalogue ad and interruption free.
Lynn Nottage on Mlima’s Tale
Playwright Lynn Nottage is seemingly everywhere. Her wide appeal and astonishing tonal range stretch from the gut-wrenching Ruined to the broad humor of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Two of her plays — Clyde’s and Sweat — are among the ten most produced of this year’s season. The operatic version of her drama, Intimate Apparel, for which she wrote the libretto, is currently on PBS as part of their Great Performances series. And she wrote the book for the Michael Jackson jukebox musical, MJ, now playing on Broadway. Her long reach is made possible in part by a form of self-care. She gives herself a mental break from covering thornier issues by simultaneously writing a comedy.
Last Thursday in an evening co-presented by the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn and Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner sat down for her first conversation with Damon Tabor. The investigative journalist wrote an article, “The Ivory Highway,” that inspired her play Mlima’s Tale. He had tracked the intertwined entities responsible for the horrendous international ivory trade. Offenders include poachers, smugglers and all-too-knowing buyers. Moved by what she read in his piece, Nottage buried herself in research. It revealed a genuine possibility of a world without elephants and she felt the need to sound an alarm. She educated herself about the communication style of elephants, especially their deeply social nature. Eventually she developed a story from the viewpoint of a rare big-tusker, beginning with his murder and following the trail through all of those who were complicit in his death. She named him Mlima, Swahili for mountain.
The script is structured as a series of one-on-one conversations illustrating the chain as Mlima’s tusks move from one possessor to the next. Always one for putting a face on an issue, Nottage had the lead character of Mlima portrayed by a human actor. This enabled her to let him more easily communicate to the audience and bring his emotions fully into the room. Rather than using the traditional approach of hiring the production crew after the cast had begun their work, Nottage brought the entire team together from day one, resulting in a more cohesive artistic statement. Oscar winning director, Kathryn Bigelow, brought her genuine outrage and big picture thinking to the initial run-throughs. The impactful concept of having Mlima physically leave his mark on all the perpetrators by smearing them in white came from costume designer Jennifer Moeller.
Mlima’s Tale, was nominated by the Outer Critics Circle in several categories when New York’s Public Theater presented the world premiere in 2018 under the direction of Jo Bonney. The book can be purchased here: https://shop.aer.io/tcg/p/Mlimas_Tale/9781559369114-9511. Performances are currently playing at 1st Stage in Tysons, Virginia and due to open soon at the Arsht Center in Miami, Florida. Productions are also being prepared internationally, though significantly not in China where the ivory trade still flourishes.
Image: Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo in the 2018 World Premiere of Mlima’s Tale. © Joan Marcus.