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Silver-screen legends from the golden age of Hollywood enjoy reverential status in the history of show business. Nowadays, movies and TV are saturated with pseudo-celebs and even nonentities. But back in the halcyon days of the studio system and the walk of fame, stars were exactly that glamorous and groomed for the media.
The Kid From Brooklyn chronicles the life of Danny Kaye, Hollywood's "Court Jester" (also the name of one of his biggest hits). He was one of the original kings of all media starting in vaudeville, he went on to play the Catskills before breaking into stage, film, radio, and television.
Kaye was an excellent song-and-dance man, but he really distinguished himself with his comedic flair. Employing many of the fast-paced patter numbers he became associated with, this new musical by Mark Childers traces his steps to stardom, along with the missteps he took in his personal life.
Stepping into the Broward Stage Door Theatre is like stepping back in time. The grand red curtain stands proudly on stage, lending a sense of anticipation for the show, giving one a sense of what theatergoing used to be like. A caricature of Kaye is illuminated on the curtain, and an audio recording of the actor doing one of his most famous routines fills the air, quickly transporting the audience back to the good old days.
Once the curtain opens, it reveals a backstage area filled with oversized props (love the camel!), flats, odds and ends, and a trusty piano. Tucked into a far corner is a lively three-piece band (pianist David Cohen, drummer Roy Fantel, and bassist Hernan Matute) that nimbly keeps up with Kaye's punchy patter songs.
Many Gen Y-ers (and even a lot of Gen X-ers) will not recognize Danny Kaye other than as the "Thumbelina" guy but you don't have to be familiar with his cinematic career to appreciate this stage biography. It's filled with plenty of issues that are still with us: balancing a career with marriage, negotiating the high price of fame, dealing with infidelity. In a sense, this could have been a show about anyone, famous or fictional, and it still would have an impact. Dramas about being torn between the one you love and the one you end up with never go out of style.
Kaye's story is the perfect example of how life in the spotlight does not always guarantee a fairytale existence offscreen. Not being able to hold onto the heart of his first love, Rosie, he decides to marry his business partner and manager, Sylvia Fine. She's a sturdy and steadfast partner writing his projects, signing his contracts, and making all of Danny's decisions for him.
But the deep affection he has for her does not translate into romantic bliss. Instead, Kaye falls into the arms of a comely co-star. He has a stormy affair with actress Eve Arden, all the while feeling guilty about his wife, who ultimately bears him a daughter and tries to win him back. It's a scenario that could be transcribed directly from today's tabloids. Times may change, but people do not. The fact that old-school Hollywood had as much trouble remaining faithful as today's class of celebrities will be an eye-opener to anyone who believes that our parents and grandparents led simple lives. (And Childers doesn't even touch upon Kaye's long-term relationship with British actor Sir Laurence Olivier.)
Playwright Mark Childers has lovingly crafted this homage to the famous funnyman, acknowledging the kinks in Kaye's armor rather than polishing them out. He's ably aided and abetted by director Peter J. Loewy, who has a field day with the classic stage conventions and comic bits. Loewy also wisely stages two of Kaye's most stirring numbers at the edge of the stage, taking a pause from the manic action to allow for an intimate glimpse at the sensitive man behind the silly smile.
As the title character, Brian Childers is great. The vocal similarity is incredible, the physicality is dead-on, and even the shaggy red hair approaches perfection. Kaye was extremely nimble, and Childers uses his dexterity to re-create many of the master's signature moves. The actor's singing chops are up to par, drawing viewers back to the days when you could always make out the lyrics even when they were being sung at lightning speed.
You couldn't ask for a better supporting cast than the one assembled for this production. Karin Leone provides Sylvia Fine with a fierce demeanor and a tender soul. Her powerful ballads are easily some of the highlights of the evening.
Jeanette Fitzpatrick and Ian August each play so many different characters during the evening, one would almost swear there was a cast of thousands up on that stage instead of merely four. Chameleon-like Fitzpatrick is barely recognizable in each of her roles, changing from Rosie to Arden in the blink of an eye, and velvet-voiced August has a field day going from natty narrator to childhood friend to blustery producer.
Although you won't hear "Thumbelina," you do get a few numbers that are known by all ("Minnie the Moocher" and "Ballin' the Jack"), along with many other standards. Like Kaye himself, these tunes are timeless and entertaining and bring a familiar smile to one's face.