NEW YORK — You’ll be relieved to know Billy Crystal is still a stand-up guy — stand-up in the sense that the jokes in “Mr. Saturday Night,” the 1992 film comedy he and other showbiz pros have turned into a slender but agreeable Broadway musical — are old-school funny, polished and impeccably timed.
Many of the barbs are at the expense of oldsters, a club of which, at 74, he’s now a reluctant and easily aggravated member. “What have you got coming up, Buddy?” a morning TV host asks the character he plays, a washed-up comedian looking for a comeback.
“Mostly phlegm,” Crystal replies.
It’s an evening of ba-dum-bum punchlines in this vein at the Nederlander Theatre, where “Mr. Saturday Night” marked its official opening Wednesday night. Low-key ballads in classic Broadway cadences by Jason Robert Brown and Amanda Green are interspersed throughout the proceedings, amiably directed by John Rando. But they are not such prominent features as to distract from the main focus, which is the funny business — sometimes tender, other times cruder and more caustic — derived from the notion that Crystal’s semiretired Buddy Young Jr. is over the hill.
Others in Crystal’s demographic, and especially those who know him from such movies as “When Harry Met Sally …” and “City Slickers,” or his hit solo stage show, “700 Sundays,” are an obvious target audience for “Mr. Saturday Night.” Crystal harbors a deep reverence for television comedy stars who inspired his own career, and so the musical radiates nostalgia. A song called “Timing” is illustrated by a wall of head shots of some of the defining comic talent of TV in the 20th Century: Sid Caesar, Phyllis Diller, Alan King, Richard Pryor, Jack Benny, Totie Fields, Jonathan Winters, Nipsey Russell.
The gist of “Mr. Saturday Night” is patterned on the movie of the same name (with David Paymer reprising his role as Buddy’s older, unappreciated brother, Stan). Crystal has teamed up again with his co-screenwriters on that film, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, for a decidedly warmer version of the story. It’s 1994, decades after the peak of Buddy’s fame as the host of a prime-time Saturday night variety show on CBS, a run that came to an ignominious end after Buddy’s on-air breakdown. With Buddy’s long-suffering wife Elaine (the indispensable Randy Graff) loyally waiting at home, Buddy trundles off to perform bottom-draw bookings at places such as the Walter P. Saperstein Retirement Center, where his audience, apparently, is only semiconscious. All in anticipation, of course, of a return to glory.
Crystal understands this brand of self-mocking shtick so well that you instantly feel in the safest of hands. So the performance is not really a stretch for him. That’s not meant to be a knock, but walking into the Nederlander, you know pretty much what you’re in for, and that’s what you get. (One could wish, however, that the production didn’t look so chintzy; Scott Pask designs a living room set that rolls in and out, but many others scenes are merely suggested, by flat, generic images projected onto a screen. The lights strung desultorily from overhead wires look like the remnants of a block party.)
A roster of fine actors — Shoshana Bean, Chasten Harmon and Jordan Gelber among them — have been recruited to play Buddy’s daughter, agent and one of his TV second bananas, respectively. They do bits or sing songs about their relationship or professional issues with Buddy. The score feels incidental to the point of disposable, although Bean is given an appealing Act 2 number, “Maybe It Starts With Me,” that might make a great audition song were she ever to be up for the role of Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.”
Paymer is an asset, playing with effortless conviction the eternal whipping boy who has a core of real strength. Graff is accorded her own sweetly zany wish-fulfillment song, “Tahiti,” with intentionally cheesy production values. (At least one hopes they’re intentional.) In the end, though — just as in the beginning — this is Crystal’s rodeo, and whenever he’s in the ring, you can count on “Mr. Saturday Night” to lasso the laughs.
Mr. Saturday Night, book by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, music and orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown, lyrics by Amanda Green. Directed by John Rando. Choreography, Ellenore Scott; Set, Scott Pask; costumes, Paul Tazewell and Sky Switser; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Kai Harada. With Brian Gonzales, Mylinda Hull. About 2 hours 30 minutes. At Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St., New York. ticketmaster.com.