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Worcester Sunday Telegram, Sunday, September 2, 2001

On Stage: John O'Neil pays tribute to Danny Kaye

By Richard Duckett, Telegram & Gazette staff

Like many a person his age, when John O'Neil was a child he would look forward to the annual airing on network television of "The Wizard of Oz."

But the preliminaries were as much fun as the film itself for Mr. O'Neil, 45, who remembers that for many years Danny Kaye would introduce the classic musical, with an opening shot that showed him running down a yellow brick road.

"I thought, that's got to be the coolest guy in the world," Mr. O'Neil recalled.

He didn't necessarily think then that he would be following in Danny Kaye's footsteps. But these days Mr. O'Neil is singing Mr. Kaye's songs.

Mr. O'Neil has created a show called 'So Kaye: The Songs of Danny Kaye that celebrates the late entertainer not only in song but with anecdote, monologue, dialogue and dance as well.

The show can be seen locally at 8 p.m. Sept. 15 at Juliano's 135 Westborough Road, North Grafton.

'So Kaye... will be bringing Mr. O'Neil, who lives in Brookline, along the road to perform in the Worcester area for the first time. But he has been frequently seen on the Boston area cabaret scene, and is the producer of "mobile" Cabaretfest, which presents cabaret performances in different locations.

Still, there are hopes that 'So Kaye ... could actually be a yellow brick road to success for Mr. O'Neil, who has been looking for a vehicle to showcase his talents to a wider audience. The show had so far been performed about half a dozen times at locations including the Brookline Senior Center and The Blacksmith House in Cambridge. Including the Juliano's venue, there are four bookings for 'So Kaye ... in September and four more in October, Mr. O'Neil said. So ... so far, so good.

Looking For a Vehicle

"We're launching off right now. I think this show is going to be around for quite a while," he said. "After 15 years in Boston, I was looking for a vehicle that would introduce me to new audiences in New England and maybe around the country."

If that happens, Mr. O'Neil will not only have Danny Kaye to thank, but also the Piano Man.

The Piano Man who never showed up, that is.

Mr. O'Neil grew up in Brookline, and now lives a "stone's throw" from where he lived as a child. He was playing music from an early age, but there was an interval in his life that not only took him away from Brookline for a while, but also from music.

He said he lived at various spots around the country and had. "a variety of careers" including hotel and restaurant management. When he came back to Brookline 15 years ago, he ventured into the field of real estate.

Then one night in Boston he walked in to a piano bar called The Napoleon Club. After becoming something of a regular patron, he was on hand when the regular piano player went missing. Mr. O'Neil approached the manager and said that he could play. The manager figured what did he have to lose?

Musical Rebirth

"That launched my whole rebirth to music," Mr. O'Neil said.

"That first night I was simply terrible, but I realized I was back home again."

Actually, he could not have been that terrible, since Mr. O'Neil was the regular piano player at the Napoleon Club for the next eight years.

"I haven't stopped working since then," he said.

Two years ago, while attending a cabaret symposium, it was suggested to Mr. O'Neil that maybe he should think about doing a Danny Kaye show. "I had always been a fan of his, but I never thought of doing his material," Mr. O'Neil said.

On the other hand, "I have a sort of off-beat approach to my material, which was one of his (Kaye's) fortes."

Thanks in part to a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, Mr. O'Neil spent a lot of time researching his potential subject.

"I researched all aspects of it -- vaudeville, movies, TV," Mr. O'Neil said. "He had the reputation as the world's greatest entertainer. I researched, and fell in love with Danny Kaye all over again."

Multi-Talented

Mr. Kaye (1913-1987) was a multi-talented performer -- a singer, a linguistic acrobat (in one number from the show "Lady in the Dark" he rattled off the names of 54 Russian composers at breakneck speed), actor, comedian, and even conductor. He was best known for his films such as "Hans Christian Anderson" and "Court Jester," but, true to his vaudeville roots, loved appearing live on the stage the most.

And although recent biographical material has pointed to a more complicated and unhappier person than the popular image would suggest, there's no doubt that he was extremely well-liked. A testament to his popularity, during his heyday is the fact that he was named a United Nations ambassador-at-large to the world.

"People remember his humanness. He had a way of touching people," Mr. O'Neil said.

In putting together a show about the performer, "I'm trying to look at some of the things that made Danny Kaye," he said.

"I look at his Jewish heritage. Love of family. Love of children. One thing I wanted to make sure of was that I hit every part of his career. I think the most important thing as I started to approach it, I knew I could never be Danny Kaye. It isn't an evening of impersonation. More an evening of remembrance."

At the Juliano's show Mr. O'Neil will be accompanied by the Jim Rice Trio, and local singer/actress/producer Valerie Sneade makes a special appearance, including joining Mr. O'Neil in the classic "The Vessel and the Pestle" routine from "The Court Jester."

Mr. O'Neil said the reception to the show at the Brookline Senior Center "was riotous ... I think this show brings people back to a time and place and a person they remember loving."

But what about the appeal of Mr. Kaye to younger audiences? Could there, in fact, be younger audiences that had never heard of Mr. Kaye?

"You actually hit an age, 35 or so, when people don't know who Danny Kaye was," Mr. O'Neil acknowledged.

"But younger audiences have a great time with the show, they just don't have the same connection. It's a very entertaining show. It's not a particularly deep show. Danny Kaye was a vaudevillian entertainer."

Mr. O'Neil himself was too young to catch a live Danny Kaye show (his last Broadway musical, "Two By Two," ran in 1970). Seeing him introduce "The Wizard of Oz" will remain the all-important first impression.

"I never got to see him live, but he's certainly changing my life right now," Mr. O'Neil said.

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