Although he left an indelible mark on the world of entertainment—mastering film, TV, and stage—the achievements of Danny Kaye have largely evaded modern-day scrutiny.
Although he left an indelible mark on the world of entertainment—mastering film, TV, and stage—the achievements of Danny Kaye have largely evaded modern-day scrutiny. The actor/singer/ dancer/comic made nearly two dozen films in the '40s and '50s, won two Emmy Awards, and developed a branded musical repertoire. And yet, most of us have three basic snapshots in our mind's eye: wavy red hair, White Christmas with Bing Crosby, and Hans Christian Andersen.
In truth, Kaye required great discipline and direction to succeed. It's possible he may never have vamped beyond the vaudeville stage had it not been for the iron-clad determination—and abounding talent—of songwriter Sylvia Fine, the woman that Kaye partnered with early in his career, married, and worked with for more than 40 years (he died in 1987 at 74).
Danny and Sylvia: A Musical Love Story, is the captivating exploration of the complex relationship between Brooklyn, N.Y.-born high school drop-out Danny Kaminsky-cum-Danny Kaye and fellow Brooklynite, college-educated dentist's daughter Fine—and Kaye's eventual need to break free, prove his own merits, and redefine the boundaries of their relationship.
As part of the off-Broadway Chip Deffaa Invitational Theatre Festival running this month at the Chashama Theater in New York, the show is physically sparse—its set comprises a half-dozen revolving props against a black backdrop, a trio of musicians onstage, and a cast that consists solely of the two actors filling the title roles. And yet the 90-minute musical feels robust and satiating, with a script that is sympathetic and yet unafraid to embody a relationship that was built on mutual need.
The book and lyrics for Danny and Sylvia were written by Bob McElwaine, who was the couple's publicist for a decade, and he keenly fashions the methodical rise of Kaye from nightclub performer to Broadway actor and film star, and the relationship that evolves with each step. More than two dozen original songs were composed for the show, with music by Bob Bain, Johnny Carson's lead guitarist for many years. Also included are three original Kaye hits. Two-time Tony Award-winner Thommie Walsh provided artistic direction.
Danny and Sylvia stars Brian Childers, who won a Helen Hayes award earlier this year in Washington, D.C., where the musical debuted to critical acclaim under the auspices of the American Century Theater. His portrayal is studied and beautifully manicured to reflect the rubbery, manic, and often-times unbridled panache that was the performer's signature. Throughout, Childers bubbles with flamboyant charm, sashaying across the stage as he narrates his story, hands thrashing and voice repeatedly heaving into falsetto titters.
As an accomplished, composed singer, his reading of Kaye's trademark Gershwin/Weill hit, "Tcaikovsky," from Lady in the Dark, in which he rattles off the names of 54 Russian composers in 38 seconds, is a feat to behold.
Perry Payne, a longtime New York actress/singer/ comedian, is responsible for a broader range of emotions as Fine, evolving ably from young, starving composer into a steamrolling superpower, both steering Kaye's career and holding her foot firmly on the accelerator of her own goals of fame and fortune.
She is also given the lion's share of the show's powerhouse ballads, and delivers them with radiant assurance, in particular the torchy "What Will I Say" and "If I Knew Then What I Know Now." Payne's voice is a treasure. A nod should also go to her wonderful period costumes by Kathryn Fuller, which offer a less-than-subtle clue of Fine's escalating wealth and stalwart confidence.
Together, the pair offers a Broadway-worthy performance: Perhaps the versatile Childers should consider relocating to New York, while Payne, a natural, is due her day under the brighter lights of Broadway-proper. Their dedication to the project's success is evident.
It's apparent that Danny and Sylvia is a labor of love, operating on a shoestring budget. But it offers big heart and a crisp story brought to vivid life by its cast. Not only would the loveable Kaye probably nod in approval, but also the more judicious Fine would, more than likely, award a thumbs up.