Jackie Mason, we've heard this song before.
No, not the musical numbers that are spliced into "Laughing Room Only," your new revue that opened Wednesday at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre, but rather the jokes that make up the comedy sections of this overly familiar evening.
After six one-man shows on Broadway, Mason knows his audience very well, and they know him. These folks savor his classic routines - and still laugh uproariously. Mason's perennial riffs are all present: the difference between Jews and Gentiles, his diatribes against designer coffee, a smattering of political jokes (there are a few new ones about weapons of mass destruction) and various politically incorrect comments on foreigners, especially the French and Indian taxicab drivers who always end up taking their passengers to Newark Airport, no matter where they want to go.
What's different about "Laughing Room Only" are the musical interludes that interrupt Mason's stand up. Musical revues used to be regular features on the New York theater scene, usually performed in small, swank rooms of luxury hotels or in Greenwich Village dives. They were topical, often witty and good training ground for up-and-coming, musical-theater performers.
Mason has assembled a talented crew here, especially an energetic imp named Robert Creighton, who not only can tap dance like the dickens but belt out a song in a pleasing tenor voice. The other cast members - Ruth Gottschall, Cheryl Stern, Darrin Baker and Barry Finkel - are equally eager.
Unfortunately, the material is not up to the performers. The opening number actually says it all as the cast sings about putting on "a million dollar musical for $19.95." That's about right in terms of quality, too. Even the minimal sets by Michael Anania look tacky.
The music and lyrics by Doug Katsaros are chirpy, peppy and generic. Occasionally, the songs border on the tasteless, particularly a double-entendre number for two wealthy ladies having tea and singing about their husbands playing golf or fishing.
And then there is the Adam and Eve number, in which Baker and Gottschall, as the first man and first woman, are dressed in naked body suits, complete with fig leafs. It's pretty skimpy and not just because of the costumes.
Director Robert Johanson pushes the songs and dances at breakneck speed, perhaps to cover up the feebleness of the material.
Mason participates in several of these production numbers and much is made of his nonmusical ability. That part of the show is funny - watching Mason sing off-key or stumble through a few basic dance steps while the rest of the cast does some serious cavorting.
"Laughing Room Only" may entertain first-time Mason listeners, those who have never heard his particular brand of comic patter. For the rest of his fans, the show has the feel of a summer-stock rerun.
When Jackie Mason appeared in "The World According to Me" in 1986, it was unusual for a Borscht Belt comedian to do his stand-up routine in a Broadway theater.
Mason's style of humor seemed a throwback to another time, but, amazingly, it found a wildly responsive audience.
Not only has Mason returned every few years, but other comedians who seldom ventured south of Sullivan County (Freddie Roman, Mal Z. Lawrence) have plied their wares on Broadway, suggesting Mason opened an unexpectedly lively market for vintage humor.
His new show, "Laughing Room Only," tests the limits of that market.
To begin with, much of his material sounds all too familiar. An example is his line about Bill Clinton ("too big a liar to be a lawyer?"), expressed in a tone of mock outrage. The line was funny when I first heard it some years back, but it seems odd that it now appears almost like one of "Jackie's Greatest Hits."
Mason is at his best with politically incorrect humor and on-the-mark satire of Jews, but there isn't a whole lot of it.
Instead of filling the time himself, he has five performers doing sketch material - singing and dancing that would have seemed lame even in 1957.
It is performed decently enough, but it is so feeble you have the idea the writers have been living in a bubble watching kinescopes of Milton Berle.
Who knows? Maybe the presentation of such well-worn skits will someday seem as "pioneering" as Jackie's initial efforts, but I doubt it.
There must have been a fiendish degree of ambition behind Jackie Mason's new show, "Laughing Room Only," which opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.
Why else would it be a musical revue?
Jackie - it doesn't seem kosher to call him Mason - is like a guy who has a successful lemonade stand and one day suddenly decides to sell fried fish.
He's had half a dozen one-man shows on Broadway, in which he'd insult those unwary enough to sit in his front row, then tell a few topical, very funny jokes full of liberatingly incorrect humor.
This time Jackie has returned to Broadway accompanied by amiable accomplices in a mildly unlavish musical - or rather, for there's no story -a musical revue.
It is not a theatrical form nowadays much favored - and "Laughing Room Only" will not do much to revive it.
Here, Jackie and his shtick are shtuck in between comic musical numbers of varying quality - some bad, some very bad. Jackie himself sings with a strong voice but one that the isn't likely to keep Hugh Jackman up nights.
The unmemorable music is by Doug Katsaros, and the cast - young, willing and probably talented - is composed of Ruth Gottschall, Cheryl Stern, Darrin Baker, Robert Creighton and Barry Finkel.
It's all been frantically directed and choreographed by Robert Johanson and Michael Lichtefeld, respectively.
Not all is lost. Jackie is adorable in his rude and prickly way - and here he is brilliant on subjects as varied as ties and skis.
But the satirical attacks on President Bush seem feeble, and his longstanding vendettas against former President Clinton and Starbucks are so tired, they curl at the edges.
More new material would have been better than a new format. The man's been in show business long enough to know that less can be more and more can be less. And then he could have saved on the extra salaries.
Ruth Gottschall, Cheryl Stern, Darrin Baker, Robert Creighton and Barry Finkel are the five performers in ''Laughing Room Only'' who put in an honest day's work. They're the singers and dancers who are charged with surrounding the star, keeping his ego inflated and occasionally, when he needs a break from repeating his old routines, putting on the musical vaudeville numbers that make up most of the show's original material. It isn't their fault that this is some of the trashiest musical comedy material ever written for the Broadway stage. They deserve credit -- and their paychecks -- for their professional pluck.
The same can't be said for the star of the show, Jackie Mason, though his name is uttered so frequently that it seems redundant to mention it here. Around and between the musical bits (music and lyrics by Doug Katsaros) and strung together by a nominal book (by Dennis Blair and Digby Wolfe), Mr. Mason offers plenty of his well-known Jewish shtick, which includes banter with audience members in the front row, irreverent and often vulgar political commentary, and observations of behavioral differences in religious and ethnic groups that play fast and loose with the line between humor and hate speech.
He has had six one-man shows on Broadway, and no matter how many of his former fans have, like me, fallen away over the years as his material has grown staler and less shrewd and his demeanor more intolerant and self-justifying, legions of admirers will undoubtedly track him to the Brooks Atkinson Theater, where ''Laughing Room Only'' opened last night.
Perhaps it's fruitless to try to dissuade them. But in the interest of consumer advocacy, it needs to be said that by conservative estimate half of Mr. Mason's solo material in ''Laughing Room Only'' has been recycled. This includes an opening in which the practiced bits about the uselessness of neckties and a comparison of how Jews and gentiles differ in their approach to buying Broadway tickets have been lifted from his previous show, ''Prune Danish.'' He also repeats a rant against Indians working as cabdrivers and revisits the sexual appetites of Bill Clinton. Surely no other comedian on earth is still grazing on that fodder.
The rest of his material is merely lazy, late or dunderheaded. His barbs aimed at President Bush are uninspired, and he doesn't mind reaching deep into comedy history: ''I go to Puerto Rico every year, to visit my hubcaps,'' might be the oldest tasteless joke ever uttered on a Broadway stage. A musical number that goes on and on about the proliferation of Starbucks coffee shops (yawn) is followed by Mr. Mason's angrily funny but way too long discourse on peddling ''burnt coffee in a cardboard cup.'' He equates the French with the snooty. And he asserts that people who claim to like and understand Picasso, Shakespeare or opera are merely pretentious.
It's all part of the courtship of an audience. But ''Laughing Room Only'' also insults its audience: they're the ones paying up to $90 a ticket for recycled material.
The publicity for the latest Jackie Mason show could lead you to believe that this full-fledged musical is a departure for the recurring Broadway comedian.
Don't be fooled.
It's true that "Laughing Room Only," unlike Mason's string of one-man shows (the most recent was "Prune Danish" last fall), features a troupe of five performers who sing and dance in original production numbers. But its premise, that Mason is trying to put up a Broadway show on a budget of $19.95, is employed more as one-liner than a plot, and much of the revue is dedicated to standard Mason stand-up (at least one routine of which, about the different ways Jews and gentiles measure a room, is recycled from "Prune Danish").
The return of Jackie Mason to Broadway, where "Laughing Room Only" opened at the Brooks Atkinson last night, will come as good news to the audiences who appreciate Mason's humor enough to keep him coming back as often as he does. Then there's the rest of us, who can't fathom what his fans are laughing at. Those of us in the latter camp can spend about an hour listening to Mason's appraisals of contemporary life, thinking that the comedian, with his smug tortoise stare, is simply innocuously out of touch. But after sitting through more than two hours of the stuff, the humor begins to seem downright appalling.
Mason will tell you that he's celebrating cultural difference by being an equal-opportunity offender, but this theatergoer isn't buying it. One routine about Indian cab drivers - in which Mason contends that all cabs driven by Indians stink (because, he says, the cabbie has invariably just finished his curry) - is low enough to come off as racist, and an unkind jag about Puerto Ricans confuses ethnicity with class. There's also a song about an imaginary paramour in Zimbabwe that's just plain demeaning.
What's most offensive about "Laughing Room Only," though, is that none of it is funny. The most topical subject raised is color-coded terror alerts, something that seems not to have been at the forefront of public consciousness for some time now. A surprising number of jokes rest on Mason childishly imitating the way foreigners talk. The musical numbers (with music and lyrics by Doug Katsaros and a book credited to Dennis Blair and Digby Wolfe) have a giggling penchant for juvenile sex gags or for uninsightful social observation (about, for instance, the proliferation of Starbucks, or the hardships of living in Manhattan).
Mason's supporting cast is valiantly committed to all this, performing Michael Lichtefeld's throwback choreography with enough gusto to arouse sympathy. Robert Creighton and Barry Finkel perform a wordless tap interlude that's a welcome relief from all that unamusing chatter, and Ruth Gottschall stands out with a talent for loopy physical comedy.
As he asserts near the beginning of "Laughing Room Only," Mason wants to create a show that's a celebration of old-fashioned song-and-dance fun, balanced with a gleefully insulting, decorum-flouting sense of mischief and spiced with a little raunchy vulgarity. "Laughing Room Only" is not that show. That show is playing just a few blocks away. It's called "The Producers."
Jackie Mason hasn't been knocking himself out writing new jokes since his last Broadway appearance. Working on the theory that if it ain't broke, don't fix it -- why waste money on a new paint job, for that matter? -- Mason trots out the same shtick in his new show that he served up just last fall. To camouflage the absence of new material, he has spliced some feeble musical comedy numbers into his regular standup. The result is a staged throwback to TV variety shows -- the lesser ones.
The draw for Mason's loyal audience is the man himself, of course, and there's plenty of his traditional material. There are generous portions of Mason's beloved mockery of the divergent ways of Gentiles and Jews. Mason's gags about their respective theatergoing and house-buying habits are still funny, but surely there is some new ore to be mined in this area. (Although, as Mason reminds, coal-mining is not a popular career choice for Jews: "Did you ever see a yarmulke with a light attached?") Mason mocks the doublespeak of Bush and excoriates Clinton's priapic ways in more or less the same words he did last time; he doesn't find much new to say about the color-coded terror alert system, either.
Among the few new topics broached is the recent perfidy of the French. Mason spends what feels like 20 minutes abusing these "Paris-ites" for their snooty ways and ungratefulness. He appears to think his goofy imitation French is a priceless piece of wit; he brings it back more than once, and throws in a few other silly foreign-language imitations for good measure. The usual riotous laughter greeted his bit about an incomprehensible Indian taxi driver.
The musical numbers, written by Doug Katsaros, don't exactly smell fresh as a daisy, either. The finale of act one is a sloppy spoof of Starbucks that goes nowhere, and none too fast. Barry Manilow could sue over "Frieda From Fresno," which sounds much like "Copacabana" and tells a similar tale. "This Jew Can Sing," a solo for Jackie, isn't quite as funny as its title. Mason does, in fact, vocalize at various points, talking his way through one song and belting another in a scary, toneless bleat. His attempts occasion a good joke, at least, when Mason asks the conductor for a B-flat, then adds, "Just give me a B, I'll flatten it myself."
The reasonably talented members of the supporting cast sing and dance in a gleaming, chipper manner. Director Robert Johanson has staged the proceedings with brisk professionalism. Production values are as promised in the title number, in which Jackie sings of wanting to produce a "million-dollar musical for $19.95." That would appear to be a fairly precise figure.