Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Review: Star Studded Audience Turns Out for Sean Hayes’s Sensational Broadway Play, “Good Night Oscar”


“Will & Grace” star Sean Hayes has a secret life as an accomplished pianist besides being a terrific comic actor. If we didn’t quite grasp the former, we’ve got it now. He opened on Broadway last in a tour de force performance as real life composer-conductor-gadfly-talk show host from the 1950s, Oscar Levant in a top notch new play called “Good Night Oscar.”

Apparently, Sean Hayes knows everyone in Hollywood, because they all turned up for the opening night. Michael Douglas (with new college graduate son Dylan), Steven Spielberg (he’s a producer on the play), Sandra Bullock with her 13 year old son Louis, Jennifer Aniston (accompanied by ex-husband Justin Theroux– no story there–they’re friends), Matthew Rhys, Matt Damon with wife Lucia, Jason Bateman, John Krasinski, Will Arnett, Carrie Preston, Cherry Jones, Cynthia Nixon, Steve Martin, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, Matthew Broderick, Broadway star Brooks Ashmanskas, Patricia Heaton, Rachel Dratch, Susie Essman, Corey Stoll, Raul Esparza, Arian Moayed (he plays Stewy on {“Succession”), Broadway’s Debra Monk, Paul Shaffer and legendary record producer Russ Titelman, plus Molly Ringwald, Julie Halston, “Leopoldstadt” star Brandon Uranowitz, a lot of the cast of “Parade,” and maybe more, I lost track of what was going on! (The lead producer is the estimable Frank Marshall.)

Oscar Levant was kind of Salieri to George Gershwin’s Mozart in Doug Wright’s beautifully written play. When Gershwin dies of a brain aneurysm at age 38, Levant is bereft. He thinks of himself as lost in Gershwin’s shadow, and creates a career not just as a composer, but as all the things above. He becomes a fixture on programs like “The Tonight Show with Jack Paar,” where he says outrageous things and gets a lot of press. Levant was so famous in the 40s and 50s his animated likeness is featured in cartoons.

But Levant’s also a schizophrenic with a huge drug and alcohol problem. So while he’s in demand, he’s also slowly killing himself. This is a problem for his wife, June, and their three daughters, of course. (He actually seems like he might have a form of Parkinson’s Disease, which wasn’t so well known sixty years ago.)

Hayes has been working on this musical for 11 years with Wright and director Lisa Peterson. He’s already starred, kind of wonderfully, in Neil Simon’s Bacharach-David musical, “Promises, Promises” with Kristen Chenoweth, so knows the lay of the land. I always think of Sean Hayes as chipper, from his TV show. So nothing prepares you for his portrayal of the sardonic, hilarious, deeply sad, deteriorating Levant. For two hours he’s never not on stage, in command of it all the time.

Levant is so verbally gifted and glib that Wright is able to turn Hayes’s version of him into a one line joke dispenser. So even when Levant is being mean or self -deprecating or semi-functioning in denial, the audience gets plenty of laughs to leaven the looming drama.

And then Hayes — who’s already proved himself — gets his big moment. Levant sits down on the Jack Paar show and plays a 7 minute version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Hayes really plays it, too, and he’s excellent. It’s an impassioned performance, one that will send every audience to its feet in the middle of the show. Extraordinary.

“Good Night, Oscar” benefits from a strong supporting cast, too, including Emily Bergl (she plays Tess on “Mrs. Maisel”), Marchant Davis, Ben Rappaport as Paar, Peter Grosz, and Alex Wyse. The play is not just a labor of love, it’s a tremendously satisfying night in the theater that will be a big part of this year’s Tony Awards.

photo of Sean Hayes, Louis Bullock, Sandra Bullock c2023 Showbiz411

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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