At the Writer’s Center to Sept. 22; at Theater on the Run to Oct. 4
The only thing more disorienting than a week in which the world seemed plausibly intent on ending is ending that week at an old-fashioned, good-natured but probably misleading musical about the entertainer Danny Kaye.
Tom Fuller, music director of this American Century Theater production, said, and rightly so, that Danny Kaye, an ambassador-at-large of UNICEF for many years, would want a tragic week, if at all possible, to end with lives resuming and a can-do American spirit holding sway. The Kaye character boasts in Danny & Sylvia that he carried on a Catskills-style act during a monsoon in Osaka by holding two flashlights to his face when the lights went out. Kaye also performed for 10 months in a wheelchair or on crutches when he injured his hip during the 1970 Broadway show Two by Two. So it seems that he would, indeed, be the first to cry, “The show must go on.” He’d probably say it with a funny impresario’s inflection and screwed-up face, too.
Still, it was difficult to shift gears from wondering if civilization will survive to wondering if Kaye’s career would survive his 1948 one-man show at London’s Palladium, especially knowing full well that it did. But then Londoners, who knew a lot about being terrorized in the ’40s, also knew a thing or two about laughing and being human and embracing the unapologetic, cathartic silliness of a song like “Anatole of Paris” when circumstances permitted. And if Danny & Sylvia is pure marshmallow fluff, a little fluff goes down better than usual this month. Heck, why not make a fluffier double-feature out of it and head straight from this show, subtitled (dubiously) “A Musical Love Story,” to the rerelease of Funny Girl at the Uptown? When the times get tough, the tough regress to early in the last century, which was the American Century, when we at least thought we knew what the hell was going on.
Sylvia is Sylvia Fine, the strong-willed songwriter/manager/wife, in that order, who transformed Kaye’s career from mincing Catskills clowning to a more sophisticated, universal clowning that put his singing, dancing, and comedic skills to better combined use. As portrayed here, she was a steamroller of a woman who more or less emasculated her husband. “She’s got a good head on my shoulders,” he sings bitterly, in a variation of the Hollywood Kaye-jibe of the era, “He’s got a Fine head on his shoulders.” Kaye dispels that cloud, in this scenario, defiantly proving his talent and independence by arranging the Palladium show without Fine’s immediate help. Thereafter, their marriage and careers subside into a coolly and somewhat sadly symbiotic live-and-let-live partnership founded more on guilt than on passion. “I don’t want you to stay because you feel indebted to me,” says Fine during their tentative reunion after the Palladium success. “I want you to stay because we love each other.” Kaye responds simply, “I’ll never leave you.” Uh-oh, is all you can think. And though the show then jollily falls into a reprise of “We Make a Wonderful Team,” one is inclined to seek out the Kaye biography by Martin Gottfried to learn the realer story, if not the real story, of the performer’s chillier side and his possible homosexual affairs.
This musical doesn’t trouble itself with any of that. Kaye gets to be the trapped, stoic husband doing the right thingtearing himself away from all the dames in his little black bookand even occasionally, and unconvincingly, saying he’s in love with his wife. And he gets to be the blazing success that his wife has made him, while declaring, too, that he’s earned it. Goodness, it’s the kind of portrait you might expect from a Danny Kaye publicist! And wouldn’t you know it, the show was written by Bob McElwaine, who was, for years, Danny Kaye’s publicist. The agreeable and forgettable music is by McElwaine’s high school buddy Bob Bain, who played guitar with Dorsey and Goodman, worked with Mancini, and alsofor all you Trivial Pursuit buffs out thereplayed guitar for the Peter Gunn theme.
Danny & Sylvia is an odd mélange. It’s one part career-review revue, like one of those TV biography shows where stars reminisce on a living-room set and refer to famous colleagues by first name and, if we’re unlucky, are arm-twisted into doing a number, for old times’ sake. It’s one part chamber musical, wherein the lovers sing to each other over the phone, subtly dropping the receiver as the bass line kicks in so that they can ease into the slow, moony-eyed choreography. And it’s one part impersonation extravaganza, in which the goal, whether the subject be Lincoln, Callas, or Kaye, is largely to present “uncanny” resemblances, which are never really all that uncanny.
Uncanny, no; impressive, yes. Brian Childers, as Kaye, has a sweetly serviceable, if sometimes thin, voice and a deep well of controlled, manic energy. He’s got those weird, undulating, Borscht Belt hand gesturesas delicate, in their own odd way, as a traditional Cambodian dancer’sdown to a tee. The pre-Jerry Lewis funny walks and pratfalls, and the Kaye-brand git-gat-giddle stammering double-talk are there, too. He also does well on those cheesy accents, although, whereas some tribute shows make you want to go back and review the original star’s work to see the genius, some of the antique, fairly racist dreck here makes you want to see old Kaye stuff just to try to figure out why anyone thought it was funny in the first place. (The ethnic stereotyping also puts his UNICEF work in a peculiar retrospective light.)
To his great credit, Childers delivers energetically on the authentic Kaye hits: “Anatole”; Gershwin and Weill’s tongue-twisting “Tschaikowsky,” in which the nimble-tongued Kaye reeled off the names of 54 Russian composers in 38 seconds; and Calloway/
Gaskill/Mills’ “Minnie the Moocher,” which was, for Kaye, a loony, suggestive audience-participation tune akin to what Chuck Berry did with “My Ding-a-Ling” some years later.
And if Kaye needed Fine, Childers at least benefits mightily from Janine Gulisano, who plays the pushy muse. A Helen Hayes nominee for roles in West Side Story and Brigadoon, she’s got a beautiful voice and intelligent musicality (their duets are tenderly rendered), and she’s a good actress, too. Even in this unflatteringly written part, she suggests both a deep vulnerability and a steely common sense, at least hinting at the drama we’re not seeing.
Jack Marshall’s direction is sure-footed, if occasionally a bit laggard. Jean Grogan’s smart blouse-skirt combinations and dresses for Fine are appealing, as is that buoyant ’40s hairdo. Mike deBlois’ spare setbasically a round couch, a piano, and some oversized board-backed posters of Kayeconstitutes an effective stand-in for various clubs and halls and homes. Unfortunately, the accompanying instrumental trio, though fairly blooperless, sounds a little muddy and uninspired.
In all, the musical is a pleasant enough, conscientiously produced, simplistic relic. One can be reasonably sure that if Sylvia Fine’s former publicist had written it, Danny and Sylvia would have been singing a whole different tune. CP