©New York Times
Westchester Weekly Desk
Sept. 21, 2003
It's All About Him, but Musically
By Alvin Klein
NOW that he has done six variations of his Catskills lounge act in a legitimate theater, winning a special Tony Award for the first one in 1987, Jackie Mason, the cantor who converted to comedy, is all revved up for -- hold on -- musical comedy stardom.
The Helen Hayes Theater in Nyack is offering a first look at Mr. Mason's ''Laughing Room Only.'' If all is tweaked well, the show, which is billed as an ''all singing, all dancing, all comedy musical'' is to begin previews on Oct. 23 at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway.
The advertisements read: ''The World's First Jackie Mason Musical Comedy.'' So he taps. He sings ''six or seven songs''; ''Zimbabwe'' and ''Manhattan'' are two of them. And he plays a role. The character is Jackie Mason.
The plot involves a penny-pinching wannabe producer of a Broadway musical, played by Mr. Mason, who balks at a budget in the millions. He insists that he will put on a show for $19.95.
The piece was written by Dennis Blair, whose writing credits include screenplays for Rodney Dangerfield and material for Joan Rivers. He is a musician and songwriter too, but the show's score was composed by Doug Katsaros. Mr. Blair's proudest accomplishment, and certainly his longest-lived gig, is doing standup, as the opening act, for George Carlin for the last 15 years.
Nobody will say how long ''Laughing Room Only'' has been in the works. Two years, Mr. Blair thinks, but he was called in just five months ago. Credit for concept is attributed to Digby Wolfe, a screen and television writer.
Last year, Mr. Mason, who has been determined to do a musical based on 1920's-style burlesque, was to have been the headliner of a show titled, with historic aptness, ''Scandals.''
''It didn't work,'' Mr. Mason recalled in a telephone interview before a recent rehearsal. ''It was too slow and old-fashioned. I wanted something more creative and original. This show is happier and more clever.''
Whatever its fate, ''Laughing Room Only,'' which Mr. Blair referred to as ''updated vaudeville,'' is a departure for Mr. Mason. After more than 40 years of going it alone onstage, he is welcoming five other performers to the spotlight and, most astonishingly, saying the words of another writer.
''I've had little to do with the writing,'' he said. '' I edit.''
''I don't know how to write a musical,'' he continued. ''There's so much detail; it's easier to cure TB than to write a musical.''
''Laughing Room Only'' is ''extravagant and colorful, with production values,'' Mr. Mason said, verifying reports that the show involves 40 wigs and 330 costume changes. ''For everyone but me,'' he added. ''I haven't got the strength to keep changing suits. I said to the director, 'Just thank God I'm showing up.'''
Is doing a show that is really a show Mr. Mason's response to being called old-fashioned, out of tune, pointlessly abrasive, trapped inside his own self-imposed stereotype?
He has shrugged off the ''very negative attitudes'' he knows he arouses. ''I'm a presold commodity,'' he said. ''As well known as I am, why would people spend money if they can't stand me?''
Perhaps he is just changing his tune and his format, but not his drive. ''I'm a street corner type and an egomaniac,'' he said. ''They have limitless energy that a normal person doesn't have.'' He could have, but did not, use the word ''chutzpah.''
''Jackie Mason Laughing Room Only'' is at the Helen Hayes Theater Company, 123 Main Street, Nyack. Performances through Oct. 5. Box office: (845)358-6333. Web site: www.hhtco.org
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