Monday, November 16, 2009

Kaye and Mostel: Together Again for the First Time

So…what are two nice Jewish boychiks from Brooklyn doing hanging out in a couple of churches in midtown Manhattan? Think you wouldn’t get caught?

You know who you are, fellows. David Daniel Kaminsky, you have been spotted carrying on at St. Luke’s. Samuel Joel Mostel, you have been seen cavorting with the congregation at St. Clement’s. Oy vey!

David Daniel Kaminsky is, of course, better known as Danny Kaye, the subject of Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical, playing to crowds of Kaye aficionados at St. Luke’s Theatre. Written by Kaye’s longtime publicist and friend Robert McElwaine (book and lyrics), and composer Bob Bain (music), the show portrays the relationship between Danny Kaye and his wife, Sylvia Fine, who is largely credited with shaping and guiding Kaye’s career and rise to stardom.

As such, Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical is a pleasant, if lightweight, way to spend an evening. I’m not sure if there is a term for a theatrical production that is essentially a biographical sketch, but in motion pictures it would be called a biopic.

What makes this show worth the visit, at least to Danny Kaye fans (of which I am one) is the spot-on performance by Brian Childers as the iconic comic, especially when he is allowed to shine during several full-blown production numbers not written by McElwaine and Bain but that are associated with Kaye himself: “Tschaikowsky” from the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin musical Lady in the Dark, and songs like “Ballin’ the Jack” and “Minnie the Moocher.” Here Childers shows us all he’s got; right before our eyes, he becomes Danny Kaye in all his full glory. Gotta say, these performances lift the show to exceptional heights, at least until it slips back into biopic mode.

Kimberly Faye Greenberg gives a solid performance as Sylvia Fine, the sharp and smart foil to Danny’s creative but wild and undisciplined talent. But, really, don’t see Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Musical unless you understand the meaning of these words: “The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.” If you do, then go with my blessing.

Meanwhile, up the street at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, Jim Brochu channels the spirit of Samuel Joel Mostel, better known as Zero Mostel, in Zero Hour, written by Brochu and well-directed by actress Piper Laurie, who is credited with shepherding the play since its inception in 2005.

Let me be unambiguous: Zero Hour is the best one-person play since I Am My Own Wife. It is as rich and compelling a story as you will see on or off Broadway right now.

The conceit is this: An unseen reporter from The New York Times has come to interview Zero Mostel in the actor’s West 28th Street art studio in 1977, shortly before Mostel’s death later that same year. It is the story and the masterful telling of it, along with the excellent direction by Piper Laurie, that kept me and the audience around me totally engaged--sometimes in stitches from laughing, sometimes with moist eyes, sometimes both at the same time. A compelling and emotional retelling of the terrible impact of the blacklisting during the McCarthy era serves as a centerpiece, but the entire story and its performance from beginning to end make for a first-rate theater-going experience.

Seeing Danny and Sylvia: The Danny Kaye Story and Zero Hour during the same week was an intriguing experience. Kaye, born in 1913, and Mostel, born two years later, could not have gone in more different directions as first generation American Jews, both of them sons of Eastern European immigrant parents. Danny Kaye represents those who chose to become totally assimilated and Americanized, while Zero Mostel never dropped his Yiddish roots, even after marrying a Catholic woman and being shunned by his parents for the rest of their lives—an image that haunted him when, as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, he had to shun one of his daughters after she married outside the faith. That the spirits of both Kaye and Mostel should be in the spotlight at two churches just down the street from one another at the same time makes for a compelling juxtaposition to ponder.

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