During the zippy overture to "Catskills on Broadway," there is a slide show that begins with photographs of '40s and '50s cars back to back on the highways to Greene County. Suddenly the image of a roadside stand called the Red Apple Rest fills the large screen. The audience around me explodes in laughter and applause.
It seems safe to say that if you remember this landmark on the arduous journey to the Catskills, you'll have a very good time at the show. Even a snob like yours truly - whose only trip to that region was to interview Brooks Atkinson, who ended his days there - had a jolly time.
It also seems symptomatic that the first applause should greet a refreshment stand since some of the best humor all evening, not surprisingly, is about food.
"Catskills on Broadway" is quite frankly an attempt to cash in on the success of Jackie Mason. None of the four comics in this show is of Mason's caliber, but each is a solid performer with a surefire ability to get laughs.
The emcee is Freddie Roman, whose best jokes are about Florida. He explains the folkways of the elderly Jews who eat dinner at 3:00 p.m. to take advantage of the Early Bird Special: "Jews are not going to spend $5 extra for the same piece of chicken just because it's dark out."
As an ecumenical gesture, Dick Capri, an Italian comic, has been included. I suspect it was because he can tell jokes that would be in bad taste for Jews to tell - like a funny sequence on the Last Supper. (Even here, the emphasis is culinary.) Capri says his ancestors were there, but not at the head table. They were at Table Four, where one of them won the centerpiece.
The last comic is Mal Z. Lawrence, and he was a revelation. Both in his sharp material and his delivery, he is a master. I particularly liked his description of meal-time at Catskills resorts: "Everybody is wearing warmup suits. What are they warming up for? Sumo wrestling is so big up here?"
Lawrence does excellent physical comedy - wonderful impressions of the difference between the swaggers of single men on the prowl and the plodding gait of the same a man a few years later, after some woman has snagged him. Lawrence's gruff voice heightens the humor of everything he does.
The only non-food-oriented comic is Marilyn Michaels, who does impersonations of dozens of familiar voices - uncannily sharp ones of Barbra Streisand and Elizabeth Taylor. She also has some spiffy routines, like a perfect four-minute version of "The Wizard of Oz."
The introduction of music midway through the evening comes as a relief. In addition to the music of the stars she imitates, Michaels ends her set with "Friedele," the song written for her mother, Friedele Oysher. (If you know the Red Apple Rest, you know Friedele, who introduced her daughter Marilyn, then age 8, at Grossinger's, singing this song.)
The title, "Catskills on Broadway," tells you everything you need to know. No surprises, but a lot of fun.
It was possibly the runaway success of Jackie Mason that inspired Freddie Roman and his confreres - or perhaps conFriars - to give the borscht another belt, and set up another helping of stand-up for Broadway.
Called "Catskills on Broadway" it opened last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, and this fourhander raises a considerable question as to whether half a loaf of rye is better than no loaf at all. For half of "Catskills on Broadway" is thoroughly entertaining - Broadway stuff, Broadway style - but the other half is more like dinner-theater fare, with the dinner not that great and the fare not that fair.
Conceived by Roman - personally one of my favorite comedians by the way, so let me put one preference on the line - as an homage to Catskills humor (90 percent Jewish and therefore 100 percent New York/American) and also as a very special kind of Las Vegas or Atlantic City revue, without spangles or showgirls but with a good band, an imaginatively elaborate setting and four comics for the price of one. And a very big room - a Broadway theater.
Larry Arrick has staged the revue with aplomb, Lawrence Miller's set design has a glitterdust effectiveness without looking tacky, and Wendall Harrington's opening sequence of projection montage - all sharply evocative of the Catskills' golden years - is brilliant.
The only difficulty is the show - or at least half of it. For when "Catskills on Broadway" is good, it's very, very good, and when it's not, it's an object lesson on how mediocre got that way.
The evening starts with a bang (Roman in holiday mood) and ends with a climax (Mal Z. Lawrence), but what goes on between sags like a sack sad with tears.
In certain circumstances - such as while taking shelter from a snowstorm in the Sahara - the third comedian, Dick Capri, would be acceptable, and his material is not that much worse than that of his colleagues. But his personality is so low-keyed that if he were a piano he'd be a double-bass.
There seemed to be a fatal lack of energy here. There was no lack of energy with Marilyn Michaels - simply a lack of any real talent. She does impersonations of people more famous than herself, some of them quite lifelike. But none of them is anything more.
To be a really successful impersonator you have to bring more to the task than superficial verisimilitude - you need a certain satirical attitude and you need a script. In a word - or perhaps five - you need to be funny. Michaels wasn't even as funny as Mr. Capri, who did, after all, have two or three quite decent jokes, and one quite indecent one.
It is difficult to review comedians without stealing their material - and even if that is how they got it in the first place, that doesn't make it critically nice in the second.
Roman is one of those comedians who tell you their life story and hope for the best. And, of course, the guy has a very funny life, and as he chugs along through late middle-age into early senility it gets funnier.
He has a few standard routines - the one about the grandchildren visiting the grandparents in Florida, food and feeding, and one or two others - but his chunky presence, and lovely sense of self-amusement and childlike wonder, give a freshness to what you might have half-heard before, and an authoritative style to all that is either new or forgotten.
Roman is archetypal Catskills - he's what made Grossingers gross, and he's the man who found the lost Concord. Lawrence, on the other hand, seems more Vegas, a bit more racy, rather more zip, and a certain manic desperation interestingly combined with a cocky confidence.
To my shame I had never even heard of Mal Z. Lawrence before this show - and the man is wonderful. Now when he does impersonations (he throws off a few at the end) he is wickedly funny (take note, Ms. Michaels), but his whole act, both a little bawdier and sharper than Roman, is hilarious.
Both comics shrewdly target their material somewhere between the menopausal and the geriatric but still breathing, and they are experts of all bodily malfunctions together with the late-life mid-life crisis and how to succumb to it.
So what to do with "Catskills on Broadway," a show that lasts a little more than two hours and has no intermission? Because I'm a nice man I'll tell you. You go watch Roman; when Roman finishes, you look pained as if you are suffering from an urgent medical or intestinal problem. You push past everyone in your row, murmuring humility under your breath.
You go out and you have a couple of egg creams - or even a Perrier water, hell, kid, this is Broadway - then just one hour later, you return, shove your way back, murmuring even humbler humility this time and looking pale but relieved, and you just catch Lawrence.
And, of course, if you're really smart, you'll get the lobby concession for egg creams. Buy it from the Nederlanders.
The title of the show "Catskills on Broadway" deserves a truth-in-advertising award. With these four stand-up comics at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, you pay your money and you get the jokes, unless you happen to miss the punch lines because of the laughter.
Appropriately, the show begins with a quick, clever montage of photographs of celebrities and guests enjoying themselves at diverse hotels. The song "Comedy Tonight" is heard in the background. For receptive theatergoers, "Catskills on Broadway" offers something familiar, and something entertaining. Is Broadway ready for the Catskills? Do Catskill hotels serve too much food?
One-liners and ethnic wisecracks speed by as these jokesmiths offer their shtick in trade, just as they would if they were performing their routines in a nightclub. Despite the presence of a director, Larry Arrick, there is no special adaptation to the Broadway stage. Expect no newness here, although there are updated variations on old themes. The comics, three men and a woman, deliver a spritz of recognition.
Freddie Roman, who conceived the show and is the opening act, reflects on his boyhood in Queens. After knocking today's cinderblock cineplexes, where if you leave a theater to go to the bathroom "you forget which movie you're seeing," he remembers the grandeur of Loew's Valencia. The mere mention of that palace evokes an audible sigh from theatergoers. Responding to nostalgic references, the audience becomes an integral part of the show, so much so that Mr. Roman is forced to interrupt and comment, "Who's working here?"
His effervescence becomes infectious as he shifts targets from the Catskills to Florida. He pinpoints the problem of retirees living in perpetual sunshine until their grandchildren arrive for their annual holiday visit, when it rains every day. By his own description, Mr. Roman is a semi-chubby man in the midst of a midlife crisis, and he is as personal as his medical report. "I took a cholesterol test," he says. "My number came back 911."
Finishing his finely honed routine, he introduces Dick Capri, followed by Marilyn Michaels and Mal Z. Lawrence. Mr. Capri, who adds an Italian-American note to a mostly Jewish field of humor, is the most predictable of the four comedians. But he serves at least one useful purpose: He lets the audience catch its breath between laughs.
Then Ms. Michaels appears, backed by a band, to deliver deft and often daft imitations. Of the comics, she has the most individualized talent. The objects of her mimicry are so instantly identifiable that there is no need for her to introduce them by name.
Her booming version of Ethel Merman imperils the chandelier, and her Elizabeth Taylor assumes a tremolo. After raining on Barbra Streisand's parade, she tosses off a passing impression of Jackie Mason, who, of course, is the role model for the current entertainment. Ms. Michael's chef d'oeuvre is a three-minute version of "The Wizard of Oz," in which she imitates Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Toto, the witches and the munchkins, one of whom sounds suspiciously like Dr. Ruth.
Mr. Lawrence, who has a ponytail and the manner of a Borscht Belt hipster, winds up the show with a rapid-fire monologue that races from the mountains to the shore, in this case Atlantic City, which he says is not a city but a bus terminal. Proving his point, he takes the audience aboard a bus dense with geriatric gamblers.
"Catskills on Broadway" manages to reproduce the ambiance of the Catskills. The basic difference is that on Broadway there is not a nosh in sight. But there is a groaning board of jokes about eaters and stuffers. As Mr. Lawrence observes, everyone in the Catskills wears warm-up suits. Warming up for what, he asks, sumo wrestling?
After every comic has had a 30-minute spot, the show ends with a chorus of one-liners as each tries to top the others. They could keep going for hours. Catskill resorts may be fighting the recession, but Catskill comedy has not lost its flair.