If you're lucky, at the end of Billy Crystal's moving one-man show "700 Sundays," you'll get to watch the actor really move. He does a cartwheel across the Imperial Theatre stage after the curtain call.
"I'm the only 65-year-old doing cartwheels on Broadway," he said the night before Wednesday's opening. In that one movement, Crystal showed off the whimsy, boyishness and charm that has endeared him to millions.
The cartwheel also is a sign of vitality as Crystal grapples with reviving his celebrated and still poignant show he wrote and stars in that looks back at his childhood and outliving his parents.
Loss, after all, is at the root of the Long Island-based stories in "700 Sundays," especially the death of Crystal's father, Jack, "my first hero," who died of a heart attack at age 54 when Crystal was 15. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his father's death, prompting Crystal for another run of the show that he first brought to Broadway in 2004.
There is loss everywhere — jazz dies, his mom dies, neighborhoods change, his beloved Yankees decline and memories fade. But Crystal, under Des McAnuff's tight direction, never gets maudlin. He always knows when to dispel the darkness with a laugh, as when he mimics the funeral director's lisping voice — "My condolenchess to the family of the decheassed." That prompts Crystal to complain: "My father's dead, and I have to talk to Sylvester the Cat?"
Home movies and old black-and-white photographs — Michael Clark's projection design is flawless — complement Crystal's monologue, and they show a peppy little boy, mugging for the camera and frantically tap dancing, or adults doing the goofy things that always occur when the filming of home movies begins. One of the show's highlights is Crystal wordlessly mimicking a cookout on July 4, 1957 that featured his uncle swearing a blue streak.
While there have been minor updates — jokes about "Obamacare" and Paul Rand get chuckles — this is the same set of stories that Crystal told last time: Going to see the movie "Shane" with Billie Holiday, his family's encounter with a local Mafia kingpin who accidentally wrecks the family's new Plymouth, and going to Yankee Stadium for the first time at age 8 for a doubleheader with Mickey Mantle on the field.
Crystal prowls the stage in slacks and a loosened tie with ease and perfect timing in front of a facade of his childhood home at 549 East Park Avenue in Long Beach. He does brilliant imitations and jokes about whacky relatives as the theater fills with the sounds of Dixieland Jazz. The three windows in the front act as screens for photos and video. At some points he apologizes if there are still parts that are works-in-progress but don't believe it: This is a very well-oiled machine. A cynic might say it's too slick, but no one can deny that Crystal has set the bar high for a one-man show.
The memories are, of course, completely specific to Long Island in the 1950s and 60s and Crystal, yet so wonderfully capture childhood and adolescence that they are somehow universal. And Crystal sadly must remind us all of what will happen or what has already: The staggering loss of parents, which he calls a "boulder" that we roll around.
The show's title comes from a calculation by Crystal that father and son spent that many Sundays together before Jack Crystal died. Sunday was the one day of the week the two had to enjoy each other's company since Jack Crystal always held two or three jobs.
A father's death at so tender an age is heartbreaking and yet Crystal has decided to return to the pain night after night. We are all the better for it.
Actor-comedian-Oscar host Billy Crystal’s career is packed with indelible moments, like when he watched Meg Ryan shiver through a sham orgasm in “When Harry Met Sally… .”
No need for faking it during “700 Sundays,” Crystal’s big-hearted and seat-shakingly funny one-man memoir. The laughter and poignance he generates are the real deal.
That’s just like it was in the show’s original 2004 run, which won Crystal a Tony. Since closing in New York about 400 Sundays ago, Mr. “You Look Mahvelous” has performed his autobiography across the U.S. and in Australia.
Back on Broadway, Crystal has so much energy and enthusiasm it’s as if he’s unwrapping a world premiere, even though it’s the same show, lightly tweaked with tangy, topical references to Obamacare, Rand Paul’s plagiarism and Osama bin Laden.
Like most Broadway bios, Crystal’s story concerns a time and place — specifically growing up Jewish in Long Beach, N.Y, in the '50s and ’60s. Standing before a brick house conjuring his snug childhood home, he affectionately summons a “world filled with maniacs, lunatics and gas — my family.”
In fast-moving, ever-entertaining fashion, Crystal covers the traits of his nutty relatives who spoke Yiddish (“It’s German plus phlegm,” he deadpans), and how he caught the standup bug on getaways to the borscht belt resort Kutcher’s.
But the real focus is his father, whom Crystal adored and lost too soon. He figures 700 was the number of Sundays the two shared. Crystal’s father, whose invaluable 8mm home movies pepper the show, taught his Yankee-obsessed youngest son how to hit a curve ball and fostered an enduring love for jazz.
Dad ran the Commodore Music Shop, which became the go-to spot for jam sessions by jazz greats. Crystal recalls seeing the movie “Shane” as a 5-year-old seated on the lap of one of his father’s shop friends — Billie Holiday. “He ain’t never coming back,” Crystal recalls the iconic singer whispering in his ear at the film’s famous sad ending.
A decade later, 15-year-old Crystal faced that same harsh truth when a heart attack took his dad and left him with “a huge boulder that I would carry around for the rest of my life.”
Directed by Des McAnuff (“Jersey Boys”), Crystal nails a perfect balance of funny and touching, never letting things get syrupy. The second act, which concentrates on his mother and her failing health, drags slightly. But that’s nitpicking.
“Give it your best shot,” Mom would tell her baby boy. Crystal does here — and it’s more than enough.
The autobiographical solo show has been done to death. Doesn’t matter if it’s a celebrity or an unknown — everybody wants to talk about themselves.
But you have to hand it to Billy Crystal: He has a good story to tell, and he tells it a lot better than most.
Crystal had a huge Tony-winning hit in 2004 with “700 Sundays.”
Now Crystal’s bringing it back for what he says is the last time, directed now, as then, by Des McAnuff (“Jesus Christ Superstar”). You may not want to miss this chance to see a master entertainer ply his trade — not to mention the rare opportunity to relish real, live Catskills humor on Broadway. (Alan Zweibel, one of the original “Saturday Night Live” writers, contributed additional material.)
The title refers to the number of Sundays Crystal got to spend with his father, Jack, who died of a heart attack in 1963, when Billy was 15.
Jack was a busy man who worked long hours at two jobs, so his three sons cherished Sundays, when they could have their dad to themselves. The focus on the family is so tight that David F. Weiner’s set duplicates the front of the Crystals’ home in Long Beach, LI.
Crystal, now a spry 65, pays especially close attention to the happy days he spent in that house, particularly during his adolescence in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
And they were extremely happy days: Except for a single, brief reference to his father having “a bit of a temper,” Jack is clearly Billy’s hero.
Dad worked at a record store on 42nd Street and booked a jazz club at night, so little Billy got to hobnob with some of the era’s greatest musicians. He didn’t just go to the movies: He saw “Shane” sitting on Billie Holiday’s lap.
This sense of living in a golden era extends to everything. Billy didn’t see any old Yankees game: He was there when Mickey Mantle hit a historic home run. And he realized he wanted to be a comedian when he heard the pros at Kutsher’s, the prized buckle of the Borscht Belt.
A nimble physical comedian and a terrific mimic, Crystal not only gives us a hilarious demonstration of Yiddish — “a combination of German and phlegm” — but an indelible imitation of Grandpa Julius, who roamed through the house, farting, like “a free-range Jewish rooster at 6 o’clock in the morning.”
Only a few references seem to have soured with age, like a tired joke about the basketball team of (mostly black) Erasmus Hall HS needing a second bus for the players’ kids.
The whole Erasmus set piece is one of the few funny bits in the second act, which mostly deals with the deaths of his parents — mom Helen passed away after a stroke in 2001. It’s all heartfelt but a little maudlin.
This is frustrating since the show’s first half is a master class in pacing and storytelling. There, Crystal perfectly segues from laughs to sentiment and back again. We’re putty in his expert hands — and that’s the memory we’ll take with us.
Songs can get stuck in your head, but what about jokes?
Many would argue that comedy depends so much on surprise that repetition can hurt it. But then how would you explain the crowds at the Imperial Theater that are roaring with laughter at Billy Crystal’s old-school charm in “700 Sundays”?
Sure, they might have missed the hit monologue the last time it was on Broadway, in 2004. Maybe they never bought the book version or saw the national tour in 2009. It’s also possible that they didn’t hear Mr. Crystal do some of the same impressions or tell identical stories on his 1985 comedy album “Mahvelous.”
But my suspicion is that familiarity here is not a bug, but a feature. The core pleasures of this warmly affectionate portrait of a New York childhood involve nostalgia and sentiment, the sex and violence of today’s Broadway.
“Yiddish is a combination of German and phlegm” is not the freshest joke, but who cares? It’s funny when delivered with the polish of a borscht belt veteran, and if you didn’t like that line, don’t worry: Another’s coming fast.
With Mr. Crystal, jokes move quickly; everything else is slow. The show rambles for two-and-a-half easy-to-trim hours.
Mr. Crystal, who is 65 but looks about a decade younger, has never been a comedian who reflects his era. On “Saturday Night Live” he was wonderful playing older men or show business figures from yesteryear. His greatest movie, “When Harry Met Sally” (Meg Ryan has never had a better comedic foil, not even Tom Hanks), revealed how time can make our younger selves look silly. And Mr. Crystal’s stature as a master M.C., most famously for the Academy Awards, is built on amiable charm and a little song and dance that seems like it’s from a show-business yesteryear.
“700 Sundays” is itself a love letter to the past. The set approximates his childhood home in Long Beach, N.Y., and features home movies projected onstage. While he does make two topical jokes (one about Obamacare, another about Senator Rand Paul), he is surely the only comedian in New York still using Mamie Eisenhower as a punch line. Instead of focusing on backstage stories, Mr. Crystal uses his facility at performing broad yet specific characters to evoke domestic scenes, including an animated family fight done in mime.
At the show’s heart, which is worn on its sleeve among other places, is an adoring portrait of his father, who died when Billy was 15. (The title is a reference to the number of Sundays he spent with him.) Jack Crystal helped run a record store in Times Square and produced records by jazz greats like Billie Holiday. His father here comes off as funny, loving, supportive. Mr. Crystal tells a story of his standing up to a mobster and later describes him as generous with the musicians he worked with.
All the reverent stories don’t add up to a flesh-and-blood character. Jack Crystal remains remote, larger than life, which may be where Mr. Crystal wants to keep him. It’s the kind of show that you wish your son made about you.
Mr. Crystal has been a star for so long and in so many arenas that he feels like family. When he did an old bit about his glands bossing him around as a sex-obsessed teenager, I chuckled not just because his timing was precise but also because I recall listening to the same jokes on a cassette over and over as a kid.
Back then this sweet story seemed a tiny bit dirty and I had yet to encounter countless jokes built on the tyranny of the male libido. The jokes may not seem as funny today, but reliving those early laughs is its own potent pleasure.
According to Billy Crystal, there were several differences between blacks and Jews during the 1960s. Blacks said, "Gimme five." Jews tended to say, "You owe me five!"
Ba-DOMP! Crystal is here all week, folks, and through Jan. 5 at Manhattan's Imperial Theatre with "700 Sundays," a reprise of his Tony-winning one-man show from 2004. It isn't a Hollywood tell-all, though Crystal -- a "Saturday Night Live" alum, the star of hit comedies like "When Harry Met Sally . . ." and a nine-time Oscar host -- must have troves of material. Instead, "700 Sundays" is a fond, funny and often moving tribute to the family and friends who shaped Crystal's pre-fame boyhood in Long Beach.
Named for the too-few number of days that Crystal had with his late father, "700 Sundays" is an irresistible blend of Borscht Belt shtick and heartwarming schmaltz. Crystal, still a savvy crowd-pleaser at 65, also salts this comfort food with just the right amount of coarse humor. The jokes sometimes sound pre-modern -- retail-obsessed Jews, Italian meatheads, hulking black high-schoolers -- but never mean-spirited. Only an entertainer as big-hearted as Crystal could make such stereotypes sound so affectionate.
That's partly because he's showing us a younger America through the eyes of a child. Standing before a detailed facade of his brick home at 549 E. Park Ave. (it even has a rooftop aerial), Crystal describes an era of tail-finned Plymouths, backyard barbecues and, in his case, grandparents kvetching in Yiddish ("a combination of German and phlegm"). He also takes pride in his father's involvement in the jazz label Commodore Records. Crystal isn't just name-dropping when he recalls sitting on Billie Holliday's lap during a matinee of "Shane" (coincidentally starring his future "City Slickers" pal Jack Palance). The moment meant something to a young Crystal, and as an adult he's clearly grateful for it.
That sense of gratitude, for every wacky uncle and summer baseball game, fairly pours off the stage, and it's what keeps this well-practiced show (Crystal toured with it in 2009) from feeling too slick. "700 Sundays" is proof that Crystal can still make us laugh, and he still knows how to hit us -- right here.
For the roughly two hours and 15 minutes that he is on stage in 700 Sundays (***½ out of four stars), Billy Crystal scarcely pauses to take a breath.
Crystal's one-man show, which retraces his childhood — the title refers to days spent with his dad, who died when the actor/comedian was 15 — first ran on Broadway from 2004 to 2005 after premiering at the La Jolla Playhouse.
But as Crystal told the audience after a preview matinee last Saturday, he felt compelled to revive the show, which he also wrote (with additional material by Alan Zweibel) when he realized that this year marked the 50th anniversary of his father's death — a milestone that coincided with his own 65th birthday.
At the Imperial Theatre, where Sundays opened Wednesday, Crystal proves an impressively spry senior, even doing a cartwheel at one point. But it isn't youthful energy that seems to propel his rapid-fire delivery as much as a sense of urgency that his story, and the story of his extended family, be shared again.
For those who haven't yet heard the story, that family included not only the Jewish relatives with whom Crystal grew up in suburban Long Beach, N.Y. — recaptured and sometimes caricatured here with the Borscht Belt accents that Crystal has cannily assimilated throughout his career — but also the mostly black musicians he came to know through his dad's work in Manhattan.
There, Jack Crystal ran the Commodore Music Shop and also managed Commodore Records, the legendary jazz label founded by Milt Gabler, his brother-in-law and Billy's uncle. Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were among the store's visitors, and Jack also produced jazz concerts on weekends.
The musicians would pop up at the Crystals' home as well. "The house always smelled of brisket and bourbon," Crystal notes.
Fortunately, any hints of self-conscious, kumbaya-ish social commentary are folded seamlessly into the comedy, which is gently irreverent, endearingly good-natured and, yes, funny. Your tolerance for Yiddish and penis jokes might be tested, but Crystal and original director Des McAnuff sustain a knowing goofiness that makes it all go down smoothly.
And at a time when snark increasingly passes for cleverness, there is also something admirable, and touching, about Crystal's insistence on paying unabashed homage to the people whose love and talents inspired him — from the mother who tried to teach him to tap dance, and later put herself through secretarial school to support her three sons as a widow, to Billie Holiday, who took Crystal to his first movie (Shane), where he sat in her lap.
Perhaps it's not irrelevant that this critic has aged nine years, and became a parent, since first seeing 700 Sundays; but the show's celebration of family ties and quirky heroes seems a tad less sentimental than it did the first time around.