To say that Billy Crystal has become this season's Hugh Jackman is something of an understatement. Crystal is likely to follow in the screen Wolverine's paw steps and devour a Tony Award in his Broadway debut -- while succeeding Jackman at the podium hosting the ceremonies in June. But Mr. Mahvelous' one-man show, chronicling his Long Island childhood with a heartfelt personal tribute to his dad, is currently bringing in more cash per performance than Boy from Oz did a year ago. The difference in profitability is staggering when you consider that Sundays has 27 fewer actors onstage than the musical with Jackman's name on the marquee. Not to mention Oz's two standbys and the union minimum of 18 musicians. Crystal gazers will no doubt recognize a shard or two from the comedian's stand-up. Some of us may have ferried through his birth canal before. We've likely heard how Billy's worship of Mickey Mantle inspired him to perform his Bar Mitzvah rites in an Oklahoma drawl.
But I'd never known that Crystal had been to his first movie theater in the lap of jazz legend Billie Holiday - or that his father had the guts to record Lady Day's "Strange Fruit" for the first time on his Commodore Records label. With the assistance of Alan Zweibel, Crystal skillfully interlaces heartfelt reminiscence with his trusty one-liners, weaving a narrative that is both fascinating and nostalgic.
We seem to be visiting with Crystal on his front porch. The intimacy is further heightened when the front windows disappear and scrapbook memorabilia -- or 8mm-film footage shot by his dad -- are projected on the screen. So we see Mantle close-up tossing baseballs with his teammates on the fateful day of Billy's first pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium. Or, with lights merely flickering, we watch a shtick where Crystal mimes a home movie.
After intermission, Crystal lingers on his father's death just long enough for it to continue resonating. He masters long-form narration rather impressively, easing rather than rushing into his chronological presentation, planting little signposts along the way in Act 1 that he deftly references in Act 2. When he earns an athletic scholarship, we're reminded that he learned to hit the curveball from his dad. We revisit Yankee Stadium during 2001 World Series shortly after 9/11 -- this time in the VIP box -- where Crystal has the opportunity to lampoon fellow guests Henry Kissinger and President Bush.
And he makes his second fantasy journey to confront God, a segment so powerful that many in our audience presumed it was the finale. Even his mom's death, which occurred while he was trying out this homage to Dad, is woven into the fabric, adding to the spontaneity and candor.
Des McAnuff's direction is lightly but inconsistently stylized, leaving us with a couple of stagey moments, but Crystal's spell prevails. Grab a seat if you can.