NEW YORK (AP) — 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.