a kate west review
starring Billy Crystal
directed by Des McAnuff
additional content by Alan Zweibel
producers Janice Crystal, Larry Magid
at the Wilshire Theater
8440 Wilshire Blvd, LA 90211
running Jan 6 - February 18,2006
contact www.broadwayla.org or Face Productions
When Comedian Billy Crystal was only fifteen, his father Jack unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 1963. Young Billy was devastated and angry. He finally came to a kind of resolution by pooling his memories into a one-man show called "700 Sundays", referring to the total number of Sundays he actually spent with his dad. Originally on Broadway, Tony Award winner Des McAnuff ("Big River", "Tommy") directs Crystal's opus once again, here in Los Angeles.
We learn many fascinating thing about Crystal's life, including his famous love of baseball and his surprising family involvement in jazz history. Crystal has often mentioned the beauty of baseball in interviews, his first glimpse of the green, green field so different from the picture in black and white television, as well as his experience directing a warm and loving tribute to his idols, Yankee greats Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (HBO's seamless "61"). Ken Burns even captured Crystal's baseball stories on film in his "Baseball" PBS series. And doesn't Crystal don a New York Mets baseball hat in "City Slickers"?
More interesting still is that Crystal's family owned the Commodore Record Label and had their own store in Manhattan for a while, meaning Billy grew up with jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. In fact, Uncle Milt Gabler was the only man brave enough to record Holiday's controversial "Strange Fruit", a mournful jazz ballad reflecting on the unfortunate still prevalent lynchings in the south at the time. An unusual childhood indeed.
Crystal spends much of the show impersonating relatives such as an eccentric aunt ruminating on lesbianism, pointing out the real deal in 8 millimeter home movies and making typical crude one-liners. For the most part, it is a heartfelt love note to his quiet and unassuming father, and, as many one-person shows seem to be, a therapeutic catharsis for the mourner. Jack worked hard for his family and always reserved Sundays to spend with them, no matter what, taking Billy to baseball games and hosting the odd and end jazz legend. We learn a lot about his family along the way and understand how Crystal got into comedy in the first place, so much of it holds audience interest, but the show does run too long.
Scenic Designer David F. Weiner creates a cozy set with a screen door porch, replicating Crystal's Cape Cod cottage, (actually in Long Beach New York), helped out by Lighting Designer David Lee Cuthbert, Projectionist Michael Clark and Sound Designer Steve Canyon Kennedy. Director Des McAnuff creates an interesting stage picture, but Crystal is obviously the focus here and the main creative hand. As when hosting the Oscars, Billy Crystal is funny at first, but grows a little tedious after a while. If you are a Crystal fan, by all means, don't miss the show; otherwise, you may just want to borrow his book in order to cull the meatier bits of the family history, which really are quite absorbing.