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|NY Times Theater Review - 'Minsky's'|| |
|NY Times Theater Review By Charles Isherwood|| |
|If the battered but unbroken stimulus package Washington finally serves up does not turn the trick, perhaps the answer to the country’s economic woes could be something a lot simpler. Bring back burlesque!|
In the nostalgia-steeped new musical “Minsky’s,” which had its world premiere here Sunday night at the Ahmanson Theater, dancing in your scanties while the world trembles is presented as noble service that might help keep a wounded country on its feet. Or better yet rolling in the aisles.
The puffed-up politician who tries to shutter a theater, a struggling American enterprise offering employment to dozens, is sent packing with appealing dispatch. No droning congressional hearings necessary, just a well-aimed pie in the face.
A backstage musical set during what may soon be called the First Depression, “Minsky’s” clearly and dearly wants to be the feel-good musical for the new one — the Great Recession, or the Calamitous Correction, or whatever grabby handle we ultimately settle on. The book by Bob Martin, who co-wrote and starred in the similarly frothy period show “The Drowsy Chaperone,” is stocked with pointed references to the tough times facing Americans then and now.
When the musical’s hard-pressed hero, the burlesque impresario Billy Minsky (Christopher Fitzgerald), asks his bookkeeper why ticket sales took a dive the other week, the schnook offers hot weather as a possible excuse.
“Or could it be on account of nobody’s got any money,” Minsky snaps back genially. “Did you ever think of that?”
Keeping American toes tapping during rough times is certainly an admirable goal. And the cast and creative team of “Minsky’s,” directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw and featuring a perky pastiche score by Charles Strouse and Susan Birkenhead, have brought this long-gestating show to life with skill and spirit. (It has been in development for more than 10 years.)
But if I may briefly resort to the lexicon of political rhetoric, “Minsky’s” is a musical comedy that too often seems to be looking back to familiar formulas, dusting off and sprucing up clichés from the showbiz trunk for another repurposing. A show drawing on sights and sounds of eras past can speak to the present and even the future, as the long-running revival of “Chicago” spectacularly proved. But “Minsky’s” seems content to do the old steps in the old style, on the assumption that sentimental escapism presented with gusto and polish can turn the trick one more time.
The movie that loosely inspired the show, “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” from 1968, is no celluloid treasure, padded as it is with long atmospheric passages showing people eating pickles and pastrami on the Lower East Side. Its turns on a shred of plot involving a comedy team (Jason Robards and Norman Wisdom) vying for the love of Britt Ekland, who wanders around looking vague, sweet and beatifically Amish. What the movie has going for it is a keen-eyed, lusty appreciation of the seedy glamour of show-business bottom feeders and the scrapes and scuffles of their lives.
That’s a crucial element missing from the stage version. The shortening of the title, traditional when recasting a book or a movie as a musical, is telling in this case. “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” zings. The prosaic “Minsky’s” does not.
At one point Minsky complains that Ziegfeld gets away with flesh-flashing on Broadway that would land the burlesque managers in the slammer. But what we see of the Minsky show — shapely chorus girls doing interchangeable dance routines in sparkly costumes — seems little different from the kind of pert, pretty hoofing we’ve seen in “42nd Street” and “Crazy for You” and the many period valentines-to-self that Broadway has manufactured in the past couple of decades. (Mr. Nicholaw’s choreography is fetching and competent but rarely inspired.) They call it burlesque, and the sequins are used a little more sparingly, but it feels a lot like plain-vanilla Broadway.
Replacing the movie’s scraps of plot with something sturdier, Mr. Martin has borrowed a durable formula from Hollywood romantic comedy in which a seeming mismatch inevitably gives way to true love. In one of the show’s funniest scenes Minsky visits a dime-store Freud to figure out why he’s not happy. In the office next door is a comely neurotic, Mary Sumner (Katharine Leonard), with similar problems and an identical shrink. Minsky and Mary meet cute after their appointments in a bit involving a blind man and a revolving door.
As love begins to blossom, however, Minsky discovers that Mary is the daughter of Randolph Sumner (George Wendt), a city councilman on a crusade against the crude and the lewd who hopes to shut Minsky’s down. Through a series of neatly diagrammed comic developments, Sumner is thwarted (and splattered with coconut custard), love triumphs, and the future employment of Minsky’s genial team is secured, at least for now. His cohorts include Beth Leavel as his wisecracking dance director, Maisie; Gerry Vichi as the cigar-chomping comic, Scratch; John Cariani as the goofy bookkeeper, Jason; and a poker-faced Rachel Dratch as the talentless chorine Minsky is forced to employ by his backer.
The short and slightly portly Mr. Fitzgerald makes an appealingly offbeat leading man in the tough-talking but soft-hearted vein, an unusual match for Ms. Leonard’s standard ingénue (accessorized with a few decorative neuroses). Ms. Leavel, who appeared as a stage-devouring diva in “Drowsy Chaperone,” proves herself capable of commanding plenty of attention in a less bravura role as the company’s mother hen (a bizarrely glamorous mother hen, in chic deco dresses by Gregg Barnes). Mr. Vichi, with his smashed-knish face, provides a small dose of the lowdown that really does recall the oily lewdness of burlesque.
And Ms. Dratch and Mr. Cariani as the matched misfits almost steal the show with a sour-grapes duet, “I Want a Life.” This talentless pair get to deliver some of Ms. Birkenhead’s sharpest lyrics in a plaintive song about the allure of the untheatrical life. “I want a life where pies are dessert,” Mr. Cariani sings in a nasal drone matched by Ms. Dratch’s. “Where flowers are flowers and none of them squirt.”
The number’s a charmer, and they do it proud. On the whole the score is bubbly and pleasant, with an accent on brassy energy. Mr. Strouse, best known for his music for another Depression-era show, “Annie,” writes pastiche with real knowledge and affection.
Fans of traditional musicals will surely warm to the two big numbers led by Ms. Leavel’s Maisie. “Home” is an anthem espousing the unpredictable but sustaining rewards of the life of the theater, “where some young girl from Brooklyn/Shows up one rainy day/Gets fitted for a costume/And goes on next matinee.”
Earlier she leads a high-energy dance number, “You Gotta Get Up When You’re Down,” which reminds us that “people need something to make their troubles disappear.” Something, of course, might just be a colorful, ingratiating show like the one we’re watching.
Those are appealing sentiments to theater lovers. But like much else in “Minsky’s” they have become faded with frequent use by now. They’re practically pieties. For all the vulgar joking and flashing of sequined behinds, you leave “Minsky’s” not with the tingly sensation of having seen something exciting and maybe a little sinful, but with the feeling that you’ve attended a comforting church service.