Brian Childers’ first-rate impersonation of versatile, idiosyncratic entertainer Danny Kaye (1913-87) has been put into the service of a spotty narrative raising more questions about the man’s life than it answers. While “The Kid From Brooklyn,” at the El Portal Theater, should please diehards hungry for spot-on re-creations of the comic’s greatest hits — tuner’s evident raison d’etre in the first place — it’s likely to lead them to published biographies in search of the real story.
Uncannily channeling Kaye’s speaking and singing voices, Childers effortlessly demonstrates all the patented mannerisms: the extravagant arm gestures, intricate finger patterns, feet sliding inexorably into fifth position. “Melody in 4F,” Kaye’s signature solo taking an inductee through basic training and WWII heroism, is performed with pluperfect git-gat-gittle scat; and “Minnie the Moocher” exuberantly explains how the star won over live auds.
What the thesp cannot do, given the superficial script by Mark Childers and helmer Peter J. Loewy, is coherently explain much else about Kaye’s personality beyond that he remained a “kid” all his life.
Events are neatly lined up — early Borscht Belt success leading to Broadway and movie stardom; marriage to ambitious songwriter Sylvia Fine (Karin Leone); a postwar slump followed by legendary status in Britain — but addressed in the hoariest of Hollywood biopic cliches: “You’ve got to grow up.” “Only onstage am I really happy.” “What do you want, Danny?” “You’ll be the toast of London!”
Libretto doesn’t always listen to itself: Kaye breaks down with “I can’t audition, I freeze up,” though we’ve just seen him nail an audition with a number he’d learned five minutes in advance.
As for Kaye’s psychological makeup, tantalizing hints (a cheek touch from Laurence Olivier) that his mincing effeminacy was no pose go unaddressed. The main problem in the Fine/Kaye marriage seems to have been a longtime affair with Eve Arden. Or maybe it was Fine’s bossiness, or Kaye’s arrested development or his long-dead mother. Contradictory evidence for all theories is proffered for us to take our pick, ditto the reasons for a breakdown on the stage of Gotham’s old Paramount Theater.
Most curiously, tuner raises but shows zero interest in exploring the ultimate paradox: that Kaye was evidently the most reluctant and distant of fathers (he dismisses his act of impregnating Fine thusly: “I did my job; I showed up and did a little dance”), yet became undisputed ambassador for the world’s children under UNICEF’s banner.
Leone inhabits two modes as Fine (peppery in act one, put-upon in act two) without ever quite persuading us of what brought the couple together, pulled them apart and reattached them in the end. Prodigious songwriter was widely known as Poor Sylvia back in the day, but libretto’s hagiographic impulses make an equal, and equally fuzzy, case for Poor Danny.
Joshua Finkel and Christina Purcell work hard as the various celebs couple interacted with, offering terrific accompaniment on “Triplets” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen.” Yet Finkel’s roles are mostly divided into those with Yiddish accents and those without, while Purcell resembles Arden without the star’s dour patrician wit, and libelously reduces the great Gertrude Lawrence to a flatulent diva out of Margaret Dumont.
Under Loewy’s direction, both stage routines and “real life” scenes are confusingly played at the same Borscht Belt energy level in act one, while the pace slows to a crawl in act two when things get serious.
Yiddish imprecations are self-consciously tossed in throughout, though the worst could’ve been applied to the farkakte sound system weirdly distancing aud from performers, adding undertones of a windswept forest fire during much of opening night.