An irrepressibly buoyant perf by Barbara Minkus drives this loving but labored tuner that chronicles the history of Grossinger’s, the Catskill Mountains resort that launched a plethora of showbiz careers. Stephen Cole’s plodding book details almost 50 years in the resort’s history, focusing on founder Jennie Grossinger (Minkus). Under Susan Morgenstern’s energetic helming, a hard-working six-member ensemble strives to make viable this sweeping history, but they end up seeming overworked.
Set in Grossinger’s glittery showroom (nicely detailed by Melissa Ficociello), the show focuses on one wintry evening in 1962 when the scheduled headliners (Judy Garland, Alan King and the Nicholas Brothers) are delayed by snow.
With a zesty, “the show must go on” attitude, Jennie, her papa (Larry Gelman), husband Harry (Bruce Katzman), daughter Elaine (Eydie Alyson), son Paul (Adam Conger) and the showroom’s emcee, Sheldon Seltzer (Michael Gabiano), decide to provide the entertainment themselves.
Offering more than 20 workable songs by Claibe Richardson, with lyrics by Cole and Ronny Graham, “Saturday Night” sets its agenda with the opening number, Jennie’s self-serving “Me,” which Minkus performs with unabashed glee.
Charging through the show like a high-energy vaude dynamo, Minkus’ Jennie guides the audience through her family history, from her father’s emigration to America in 1904, through their 1914 conversion of a failed Catskill farm into a haven for city-dwelling Jews who were excluded from most vacation hotels, to Grossinger’s eventual status as one of the premier entertainment venues on the East Coast.
This ambitious tuner works well when it focuses on Jennie’s comic misadventures in the hotel biz, such as her clandestine visit to a Berkshires hotel for “goyim,” featuring the hotel’s band singer (Conger again) crooning the clever “The New Restricted Two-Step.” She also performs a nice duet with Gabiano’s Seltzer (“Simon Says”), alluding to an unrequited attraction between them.
Gabiano handles the emcee role quite well, firing off a series of Borscht Belt one-liners like missiles throughout the show. He is less successful in his attempts to imitate famous entertainers who performed at the hotel, including such stars as Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor and Jimmy Durante.
The family quartet of Papa, Paul, Elaine and Harry serves mainly to move the plot along. When they are showcased vocally, they sound like a group of hotel staff frantically attempting to vamp until the real entertainment arrives.
Although Katzman’s Harry nicely projects the frustration of always being shoved aside by his wife’s single-minded drive (“Married to the Store”), he and the other Grossingers could use a few more singing and dancing bodies to help with the chores.
Another drawback to the perfs is the underpowered instrumental accompaniment by musical director-pianist Paul Chipello, bassist Mark Tavarez and drummer Craig Fine. They bring a laborious quality to the uptempo numbers and not enough support for the ballads.