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Theater: ‘The Kid from Brooklyn’ showcases Danny Kaye’s comic cavorting

by Robert David Jaffee

January 3, 2008 | 7:00 pm

Karin Leone and Brian Childers. Photo by Ed Krieger

Karin Leone and Brian Childers. Photo by Ed Krieger

"The Kid From Brooklyn," a musical based on the life of Danny Kaye, now playing at the El Portal Theater in North Hollywood, takes us back to the heyday of Kaye (born David Daniel Kaminsky), a versatile performer whose tongue-twisting verbal artistry and physical high jinks have influenced such modern-day performers as Robin Williams and Jim Carrey.

"I grew up with Abbott & Costello and the Three Stooges," said Peter Loewy, director, co-producer and co-writer of the show, adding that Kaye was even more talented because he was not just a comedian -- he was also a song-and-dance man. As a boy, Loewy was transfixed by Kaye's "The Danny Kaye Show" on TV. "He seemed to be talking to me in my living room," Loewy said.

After that, Loewy watched as many of Kaye's movies as he could in reruns.

In Loewy's long career in the theater -- a career that has included working on such Broadway musicals as "Barnum" and "42nd Street" and founding his own theater company in New Jersey -- Loewy says that "The Kid From Brooklyn" is his most personal project. He had thought for years about doing a show on Danny Kaye, who died in 1987 at the age of 74, but it wasn't until Loewy met Brian Childers that he knew he had finally discovered the actor who could play the title role.

Although legend has it that Kaye never took an acting, singing or dancing lesson in his life, Childers, who won a Helen Hayes Award for his previous portrayal of Kaye in "Danny & Sylvia," has trained for years, acting in school plays since second grade all the way through getting his master's at the University of South Carolina. He appears effortless at capturing the improvisational riffs of Kaye, yet he admits that when he was first approached to be in "Danny & Sylvia" he did not know much about Kaye, except that he was in the 1954 movie "White Christmas." Childers said he became a "fanatic," studying all of Kaye's work, from his movies to his specialty numbers and his work at the Palladium in London.

Unlike zany comedies, such as the play's namesake, the 1946 comedy "The Kid From Brooklyn" -- a film within a film that features songs that seem to have no bearing on the story line -- Loewy's stage production of "The Kid From Brooklyn" integrates all of its numbers, including such famous ones as "Tchaikovsky" and "Pavlova," into the narrative. The efficient script, co-written by Loewy and Mark Childers, manages to take in Kaye's beginnings as a Catskills performer, moves through his nightclub acts, Broadway performances and Hollywood career, all while bringing out a pathos of his bittersweet family life.

That is not to say that "The Kid From Brooklyn" doesn't have a family-friendly atmosphere. Loewy introduces the show by making a few quips onstage. After the performance, Childers, co-star Karen Leone -- who plays Kaye's wife, Sylvia Fine -- and supporting players Christina Purcell and Joshua Finkel walk through the theater to the lobby and greet the audience like old friends who haven't seen each other in years. Perhaps that menschiness is what Danny Kaye will always represent to those who once knew him, and even to those who are now discovering him -- a dear companion who spoke to us in the living rooms of our childhood.

"The Kid From Brooklyn" plays through Jan. 27 at the El Portal Theater, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, (818) 508-4200. Tracker Pixel for Entry

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