BWW Reviews: Brian Childers Lit Up the El Portal as Danny Kaye on New Year's Eve
An Evening with Danny Kaye/conceived, written & performed by Brian Childers/directed by Stephen Nachamie/musical direction by Jeff Biering/El Portal Mainstage, NoHo/New Year's Eve, December 31, at 4 pm and 9 pm
Brian Childers has been playing Danny Kaye for several years in various productions; first, in a two-person show, then as part of a four person play entitled The Kid from Brooklyn, which was the longest-running show at the El Portal from December 2007-February 2008, and now, once more at the El Portal in a one-man musical revue of Kaye's career, incorporating his stage tours, work for the USO and seven of his Hollywood films. This new show is a work in progress, and Childers plans to take it on the road with the hopes of performing it in London where Kaye scored a tremendous ovation.
Childers not only resembles the man but has an uncanny ability to replicate his voice, both talking and singing, and his precious, child-like mannerisms. The frenetic and sometimes overly silly Kaye, as a matter of fact, was so extraordinary and eclectic that to some, he was too difficult to comprehend. Geniuses are unpredictable! The constant movements, the continuous quick patter, the intensely personal focus...never let down for a split second, at least while performing. Robin Williams and Jim Carrey have both displayed similar fast-talking comedic techniques, which undoubtedly were influenced by Kaye, whose brilliance knew no bounds. Well, Childers has Kaye down pat, to the minutest blink of an eye and gesture with his fingers, even winking and flirting with females in the audience while singing. He came out into the crowd several times, at one point to pick his Vera Ellen to dance briefly for "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing" in the White Christmas segment of Act II. The only thing missing in the movie segment, for me, was a group of small children to sing in chorus with Childers, as Kaye was a Pied Piper figure with little kids...a fact that Childers was quick to point out.
The first act told the story, with very little talk and mostly song, of Kaye's rise from Brooklyn, his tours, including the London Palladium and Paris and concluded with a WWII USO tour in uniform. Hits Childers included: "Tchaikovsky", "Ballin' the Jack", the very amusing Gypsy chorus with the audience divided into three parts, "Mad Dogs and Englishmen", a lovely "Molly Malone" and "Anatole of Paris", written by Sylvia Fine Kaye, Danny's devoted wife. Act II was the movies, and there was music featured from Up in Arms, The Five Pennies, White Christmas, The Court Jester and the unforgettable Hans Christian Anderson, from which he sang the largest number of tunes "Copenhagen", "Thumbelina", "Ugly Duckling", "Inchworm" and "Anywhere I Wander"... such rich material rendered beautifully by Childers. He concluded with "Minnie the Moocher" and with a few words of Kaye wisdom "Life is a big canvas, so throw as much paint on it as you can and live to the fullest!" He left the stage forming a conga line with "When the Saints Come Marching In".
Director Stephen Nachamie has smartly given Childers the vast space he needs in which to ingeniously create and musical director Jeff Biering was a gem at the piano throughout the two-hour show. My only suggestion would be to lengthen the second act even more, as folks do love those old movies and their signature tunes, and put in some kids to perform a number or two with Childers, for Kaye absolutely adored them.
Comedian, magician, ventriloquist Bart Rockett opened the show with a 15-minute set, some of which was rather funny, especially his dummy Willard who threw out some mildly insulting, risque comments about what he saw in the audience. From Arkansas, Rockett has a down-home appeal, exclaiming what people must think of him still "talking to himself and playing with dolls!" He is a great ventriloquist. You hardly witness his mouth move at all, even while Willard is singing! Rockett has an act that is perfect for night clubs and cruise ships, but it did not go over very big with the unreceptive, mostly senior El Portal audience, who are more amused by the likes of Kaye and his more stylish, clean material. The two acts did not, shall we say, make an ideal blend. I still would like to see the talented Rockett's whole act, which, I understand, will return to the Monroe Forum Theatre of the El Portal for a few dates in March.