If there's a point to "Comedy Tonight," a reason for its existence, it was not apparent at its pre-Broadway opening in Stamford. At best, it's three unrelated vaudeville or nightclub acts in search of a show. Michael Davis, Dorothy Loudon and Mort Sahl have been arbitrarily dropped onto the stage in front of a vast, expensive-looking crimson set decorated with gold hubcap lights and left to sink or swim.
If there’s a point to “Comedy Tonight,” a reason for its existence, it was not apparent at its pre-Broadway opening in Stamford. At best, it’s three unrelated vaudeville or nightclub acts in search of a show. Michael Davis, Dorothy Loudon and Mort Sahl have been arbitrarily dropped onto the stage in front of a vast, expensive-looking crimson set decorated with gold hubcap lights and left to sink or swim. With 40 years of genuinely funny standup social commentary behind him, Sahl swims strongest.
It’s up to Loudon to get the show going, coming onstage to deliver its “theme” song, “Three,” a weak Kander and Ebb effort that lists, endlessly, famous threesomes from the three little pigs to the Andrews Sisters. It’s briefly reprised by all three performers to end the show.
Immediately following the non-event opening number comes juggler Davis. Heaven knows he’s astonishingly deft, is no slouch at warming up an audience and cajoling it into applauding, and even sings and strums a guitar amusingly. But he looks lost in front of Ray Klausen’s intimidating set, which has different configurations for each performer, and very much in need of a show such as “Sugar Babies”– in which he had his first big stage success — to surround him.
Then comes Loudon’s act, the set reassembling itself to reveal an onstage quartet of musicians previously heard vaguely from backstage. Loudon presents a sort of precis of her performing life, from saloon singer to Broadway star. But ultimately all she firmly establishes is that she’s appeared in an alarming number of big Broadway flops. And she spends far too much time attempting oldies (some of them very) that have been performed better by others.
Having slurred and over-stylized “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” into oblivion, to take one example, Loudon comments, “It’s a nice song” and mentions that it was originally performed by Bert Williams, the legendary turn-of-the-century black vaudevillian and Ziegfeld star. She also takes on “Broadway Baby” from “Follies,” and reprises her “Fifty Percent” from Michael Bennett’s unsuccessful “Ballroom,” announcing that it was “the song of my life.” Sadly, the final reaction to Loudon’s over-familiar act is, “So what.”
She is barely into the wings before the set has reassembled itself again and Sahl has strolled onstage in a canary-yellow sweater, carrying a local newspaper and a New York Times, both props rather than necessary prompts. He immediately captures his audience as he cheerfully launches into a barrage of social comment at the asked-for expense of Republicans, Democrats, liberals, movie types and New Women.
It’s the unassailable logic of his comic commentary that makes it so funny, along with the affability Sahl projects. “God bless the president, long may he waver,” he says in his throwaway style, referring to himself as an intellectual Will Rogers. He may stroll the stage five or so minutes more than he should, but he dominates it and that overbearing set in a way that eludes Davis and Loudon.
Alexander Cohen is credited with having directed “Comedy Tonight,” Albert Stephenson with musical staging. There’s little evidence that either has done anything. Equally little has been done to tie the three acts together.
“Comedy Tonight” looks orphaned on the stage of Rich Forum. Imagine how bereft it’s going to look on the stage of Broadway’s much larger Lunt-Fontanne Theater.