Anyone can do this — get up on stage and tell their life story. Gas on about your dopey relatives, throw in a few tales about puberty and high school and let us know that you came through the hard times happy and healthy.
That’s really all Billy Crystal has done in “700 Sundays,” the theatrical memoir that he’s tuning up at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, in advance of a Broadway revival in November. The show won a Tony for its first engagement in 2004, and Crystal has also turned it into a bestselling book.
So what’s Billy got in his show that I couldn’t match? He even says early on that, “We all have the same five relatives — they just jump from album to album.”
Except that my family never owned a record store in Manhattan where jazz greats congregrated. My uncle didn’t write songs that became standards for those artists (“L-O-V-E”). My dad never hosted jazz concerts at the Central Plaza on weekends. I didn’t see my first movie sitting on the lap of Billie Holliday. Duke Ellington and Count Basie didn’t come to my dad’s funeral visitation.
We have no home movies of Mickey Mantle at Yankee Stadium, Wilt Chamberlain heaving up jump shots at a Catskills resort, or me doing a bandy-legged tap-dance routine at my dad’s jazz club (or at his propane-gas distributorship).
Billy not only has this mountain of gold in his closet, he has crafted it into a two-hour ride that runs on the steam of his unsparing observations and affection for his family — and his capacity for holding an audience. As he proudly says, he started tap dancing at 5 years old and he’s been performing ever since.
Crystal estimates he spent “700 Sundays” with his beloved father before he died when Billy was 15. He spins out this memoir in front of a facade of his house in Long Beach, N.Y., with photos and films projected on the windows.
The first act is a rapid-fire run through his relatives — the smoky-voice harridan, a droopy-faced and scatological uncle and a grandfather who brings with him a symphony of flatulence. Crystal makes performance look so easy — with perfect character voices and physical tics. And charm. He’s just so indescribably charming. No wonder Oscar has picked him to host the award fest nine times.
That he employs those talents in the service of his rather astonishing autobiographical material makes this show so much more extraordinary.
The second act turns reflective, with the burden of his dad’s death and the daunting prospect of being left as the teenage “man of the house” with his grieving mother. Crystal, with director Des McAnuff, perfectly rides the roller coaster of pathos and laughter. The phrasing and rhythm are precise; Crystal’s voice glides over words like a clear brook.
This Minneapolis gig is Crystal’s only shakedown cruise before bringing this show to Broadway. If there is an empty seat in the State Theatre for the remaining performances, you will have missed a singular opportunity.