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Review: 'Minsky's' at the Ahmanson Theatre *Updated

February 8, 2009 |  1:51 pm


“Workin’ Hot,” the thrilling opening number of “Minsky’s,” the nostalgic and not terribly authentic backstage musical that had its world premiere Friday at the Ahmanson Theatre, gets off to a rather shaky start. Set in a burlesque house on New York’s Lower East Side, the show begins with the testing-out of a new song that’s supposed to kick off the new revue with a bang.

Buster (Kevin Cahoon), the resident pianist who probably would have been better off pursuing his dream of tap dancing, has composed a tune completely devoid of pep. Redeeming this dirge would appear to be a lost cause, but Billy Minsky (Christopher Fitzgerald), the scrappy impresario who runs the tawdry National Winter Garden Theatre, is an expert at making sequined purses out of sows’ ears.

“The song is terrible, yes, it’s a terrible, terrible song,” he tells his demoralized composer before adding a hook and intensifying the theatrical heat. “But terrible is a good place to start. You can only go up from terrible.”

This advice should come in handy to the creators of “Minsky’s,” who could use Billy to work one of his miracle cures on their show, which, though far from terrible, isn’t quite the electric crowd-pleaser they’re intending. Intermittently delightful, the musical is just as intermittently bumbling, coming alive mostly in the colorful burlesque sequences and taking a sharp nose-dive when attempts are made to contain the parade of skimpily clad dancing girls and shamelessly hoary gags into a traditional book musical.

Beth_leavel_as_maisie_in_minskys_2“Minsky’s,” featuring music by three-time Tony winner Charles Strouse (“Bye Bye Birdie,” “Applause” and “Annie”) and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead (“Jelly’s Last Jam”), has been kicking around for ages. Loosely based on William Friedkin’s 1968 film “The Night They Raided Minsky’s,” which was itself based on Rowland Barber’s 1960 historical novel, the show has had several setbacks along the way, including the deaths of director Mike Ockrent and Evan Hunter, who wrote the musical’s original book.

Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw, whose sensibility would seem to be an ideal fit for “Minsky’s,” has given the production the same ersatz verve he brought to “The Drowsy Chaperone.” In fact, there’s a good deal of overlap in the companies of these two retro shows, both of which attempt to resurrect bygone theatrical eras with a combination of daffy grace and straightforward homage.

Bob Martin, “Drowsy”s co-author and star, has been charged with revamping Hunter’s work. There are plenty of nifty one-liners and deliriously silly shenanigans, but the book, which has been transplanted from the mid-’20s (in which the film was set) to the Depression-clobbered summer of 1930, has that lumpy look of a dish that’s been fiddled with by too many cooks. Even its dire economic relevance feels belabored.

It’s a shame that no one recognized that what was most memorable about Friedkin’s movie wasn’t the plot (involving a stage-struck young Amish woman inadvertently becoming a striptease dancer) but the filmmaker’s unromanticizing passion for this tenement-knockoff Ziegfeld Follies world and the bustling immigrant squalor in which it thrived.

The same sepia-tinged realism, with mouths chomping on pickles and bloodshot eyes reflecting the footlights, would have been difficult to reproduce onstage. But the tone of the show could have benefited from a few more grains of documentary truth and a whole lot less musical-comedy fraudulence.

Katharine_leonard_and_christopher_fSure, there are passing moments of refreshing seediness, as when Billy removes some “schmutz” from his love interest’s hair in their meet-cute. The complication here is that Billy doesn’t know at first that Mary (Katharine Leonard) is the daughter of Randolph Sumner (George Wendt), the city councilman who’s trying to close down his operation on grounds of indecency. (The Amish angle has been wisely scrapped altogether.)

But the problem isn’t that this romantic business lacks credibility — it’s that it plays out as such a giddy chore. Fitzgerald and Leonard laggardly go through their amorous motions, unconvinced themselves that this relationship is anything more than a moldy device. The song in which they separately confess to their Viennese psychiatrists their longing for “the perfect someone” has a hand-me-down tiredness that’s only thrown into relief by the unfunny bit of doctor’s office slapstick that precedes it.

Fitzgerald, who possesses a great trumpet of a voice, excels when a gaggle of leggy showgirls is circling him to the rhythmic bleats of the live orchestra. Leading man he’s not, but he more than compensates with an offbeat charisma. Less able to overcome her blurry ingenue role (given a strange hyper-critical, obsessive-compulsive update), Leonard is largely eclipsed by Beth Leavel’s Maisie, Billy’s right-hand woman at the theater.

A veteran trouper, Maisie is a largely a mouthpiece for sentiments about the “sacred” ground of the theater. But Leavel, a Tony winner for her performance in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” can be counted on for oomph, and she gets to strut her belter’s stuff in “You Gotta Get Up When You’re Down” and “Home,” two titles that basically sum up her character’s limited function.

Rachel_dratch_in_minskysAn eccentric constellation of supporting players distracts from the musical’s more threadbare patches. As Scratch, the old vaudevillian cutup, Gerry Vichi is a salty hoot, and “Saturday Night Live” alum Rachel Dratch, playing the oafish daughter of a moneyed producer, gets to wear the most absurd get-ups as her character is cast in a variety of routines for which she is egregiously unsuited. (Gregg Barnes’ costumes for Dratch include an Abraham Lincoln suit and a sexy banana tree, but his most ingenious invention may be a bikini top made with tom-toms for the chorus girls.)

Anna Louizos’ stylishly fleet scenic design sketches the historical locale without forgetting that this is first and foremost an affectionate riff. Louizos, who did the sets for “Curtains,” another backstage musical that came through the Ahmanson, has a knack for suggesting storied showbiz milieus.

There isn’t one song that stands out as a sure-to-endure winner, but Strouse’s tuneful music acts like an invisible string setting the audience’s limbs collectively in motion. And Nicholaw’s seductively propulsive choreography (the tap numbers are a knockout) is perhaps the main engine of the show.

Too bad the galumphing story is such a buzz-kill. (Even the kangaroo court-room resolution is a trial of predictability.) "Minsky’s” may not be aiming for bona-fide burlesque, but the show completely loses its bearings when it throws a wet-blanket narrative over more visceral entertainment pleasures.

-- Charles McNulty

“Minsky’s,” Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions. Ends March 1. $20 to $100.  (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

Top photo: Christopher Fitzgerald and the dancers of "Minsky's." Second  photo from top: Beth Leavel with dancers. Third photo from top: Katharine Leonard and Fitzgerald. Credit: Gina Ferrazi.

Bottom photo: Rachel Dratch. Credit: Craig Schwartz 

Comments () | Archives (28)

Mr. McNulty obviously went to the show to write a review. I went to the show (during previews) to be entertained -- and was. Completely and delightfully. Great cast (except for an unfunny George Wendt), songs, dancing, book, production values. Next time, Mr. McNulty, leave your notepad at home, sit back, relax, and have a little fun.

I agree with the previous post. The review is very confusing.

Apparently McNulty went to see a documentary and it turned out to be a musical comedy.

Once again, Mr. McNulty has approached a musical comedy entertainment as if it was supposed to be some world-class production of "Hamlet." What he characterizes as "unfunny" has audiences screaming with laughter. With our country and the world in its current horrible condition, this would be bad because, why, exactly? And, by the way, it's "Curtains," not "Curtain."

Like a good burlesque show in the 1920's - '30's, Minsky's, which I saw in a late preview, made me smile and, for a few hours, took my mind off more serious matters. True, it has little pretense to do more, but it succeeds in its mission. Is that enough to succeeed on Broadway in terms of ROI? Probably not. However, I can highly recommend it for the fun it provides. I can understand that Mr. McNulty, as a paid critic, might feel the need to do an autopsy on the show, and don't disagree with many of his observations, but I suspect if you asked him if he had an enjoyable evening, the response would be yes.

I thought "Minsky's" was awesome and was so much better than "9 to 5". Beth Leavel is amazing, I love her show stopping number "Home". For some laughs and to see the amazing sets and costumes I defintely recommend "Minsky's".

This show has a lovely score and three or four delightful performances but the two leads keep the show leaden and prevent it from really soaring.. But its fixable in the right directorial hands..

I loved it, went twice and can't wait to go back. Don't believe everything you read.

You must have had a terrible case of sour acid before seeing this show. Or you did not see the same one I did.

The "forgettable" numbers like "Home" and "Nothing Lasts Forever" have been stuck in my head for weeks. I was charmed and swept away. A few weeks ago there was an article discussing the relevance of critics. Since Mr. McNulty seems to have completely missed the point of this escapist valentine to the theatre and its fragility in the current economic climate, maybe someone should beat him over the head with a banana or two to remind him that sometimes an audience just wants to be entertained. Minsky's does just that and I cannot recommend it enough. Go see it and support theatre before critics like Charles McNulty put the final nail in the coffin.

I enjoyed this more than any show I've seen in a long time. I'm not saying it was flawless (for me, George Wendt and Gerry Vichi were only sporadically amusing), but I loved it, and am recommending it to everyone I know who enjoys musicals. Christopher Fitzgerald was grand as Minsky -- I love his voice, and his charisma. And Beth Leavel was so stunning that I wish she were in every show invented. Fun story, fun songs, lots of jokes, lots of singing and dancing, and all of it just thoroughly entertaining.

I consider myself extremely discriminating, in fact used to be a journalist, and I LOVED the show. I can share that I walk out of more shows than I stay at, at intermission, and am a chronic watch-watcher. But with this play, my enthusiasm and attention didn't drift for a second. Yes, the show felt familiar - but to me, not in a retread, been-there-done-that sense -- but almost as if this was a revival of a famous old play. It did have an old-fashioned quality - corny jokes and set-ups, novelty songs, the big tap dance numbers, the "I-love-showbiz" number. But it was done with so much exuberance and affection - like Drowsy Chaperone - that I found it irresistible, in a way that I did not, with Curtains. One aspect that was really pleasurable to me was the good natured quality. It just had a sweetness and tenderness that the creators were not afraid to foreground. The creators were also confident enough to be quiet and intimate - yes, tender - with the characters rather than be brassy at every moment. The show closer ended with a very sweet quiet moment, which to me spoke volumes about the taste and sensibilities. In other words, the show had HEART - and I think that's what audiences are really picking up, even unconsciously. As far as the casting, I disagree with all who question Christopher Fitzgerald's star quality. I thought he held the stage firmly in his grasp - funny, smart, charming, brash, sweet, great singer, perfect timing. I was unfamiliar with him, and would welcome seeing him anytime. Obviously, the same for Beth Leavel, who stops every show she's in. George Wendt is, to me, stunt casting. He's obviously a nice guy, but is known for underplaying, not the broadness required here. Backdrops look cut-rate, but we're in a recession, so I didn't care. I thought the New York street backdrops were gorgeous. As for the musical numbers, they ranged from show-stopping, obviously, to wonderfully charming or funny. There wasn't a clunker in the bunch. The show does not break new ground theatrically, is not intricately woven and thematically provocative like Sondheim, but it's classy, smart, top-notch, fun, silly magic, from people at the top of their craft.

HeathCliff's comments more matched my experience than those of McNulty. Yes, tired rehashing of every show biz/musical comedy cliche, but charmingly done. The dance numbers were really wonderful. And my gosh - how could you not laugh at a bunch of dancing lobsters, my favorite number?? ;-)

Mr. McNulty must've been in a real bad mood to have not liked "Minsky's." The story brought back memories of old Kern-Bolton-Wodehouse musicals and as for the songs, he didn't like "Bananas" or the Lobsters number?

I wholeheartedly disagree with Mr. McNulty's assessment of this production. While it may not be the best musical I have ever seen, it is truly a fun experience. The songs are great, the costumes wonderful, and the dancing is fabulous! The day I went to see the show I heard a lot of depressing news (as most of it is now); this made me forget about that, even if just for a little bit.

Ooops! Someone thought he was going to see Cabaret, and ended up in the house of Burlesque! The whole point was to escape from - and laugh at - dire economics (both then and now), not to dwell on them. I went with a group ranging in age from 40 - 70, and we all had a blast! I have seen what's on the boards now:
You want a more serious musical? See Stormy Weather.
You want politics? See Pippin.
You want laughs,eye-popping costumes and scenery, and jazzy 1920's orchestrations of fun campy showtunes that keep you bouncing in your seat? See Minsky's.

This show is a HOOT!!! Go see it!!!

I am so tired of reading Mr. McNulty's dreary reviews. Everything must be picked apart mercilessly. MINSKY'S is by far the best show Center Theatre Group has put on. It's funny, heart-warming and despite the subject matter, appropriate for the whole family. My heart sank when I read his review this morning, thinking that it may dissuade others from attending the type of show we all need to see right now. DO NOT LET IT STOP you from seeing this show. Mr. Fitzgerald is a revelation and Ms. Leonard is a star in the making. And the costumes were beyond wonderful. Gregg Barnes is a genius to infuse his creations with character, wit and humor. These are not just clothes the actors put on but deserve top billing of their own! GO SEE MINSKY'S. It's a guaranteed good time. Who among us doesn't need their spirits lifted right now?

I agree with Rosa about being tired of reading Mr. McNulty's reviews. So much so in fact that I cancelled my Times subscription today. When Mr. McNulty has put the nail in the coffin of LA theatre and (especially new musicals like Minsky's) there is nothing left to eviscerate I hope he finds himself with plenty of money left in his 401k.

My what a 'composed' lynching for Charles McNulty. People, this kind man has given you a review you're not likely to beat ANYWHERE, you'd think Los Angeles would be grateful to even HAVE a theatre critic again, but I believe subscripers want reviews that will back up their monetary investment. And if they're going to complain, Mister Ritchie et al, will grant us entire seasons of non-union productions of "Babes in Arms" and other pablum. It works just like television. we get the content we WANT, not what we deserve--except sometimes. Mr. McNulty admits that 'Minskiy's" IS entertaining but it was because of his review of "Curtains," that the last Kander/Ebb show went on to broadway at all. Think not? Go ahead and archive the seething resentment that can be found in the New York TImes reivew of that show, (by Brent Brantley--who has apparently, never seen a musical he liked.)

And to you, Mr. Ken Werther, so early to be right there to raise the lanterns, Ihint: it's only ONE if by land by the way--just what exactly are your credentials in order to step into Mr. McNulty's shoes the moment his fingers come off the home row?

Mr. McNulty wrote for the Village Voice and is clearly more comfortable with the "downtown" alternative types of theatre. I'm not a subscriber but I do frequent the Ahmanson and I have yet to read a positive review for a musical in that particular house - I must have missed Curtains review. I do think Mr. McNulty wishes he was still reviewing cutting edge works and his taste is clearly reflected in his writing.

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