Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Did LA Critics Think Minsky's Worth Raiding For Musical?

Did LA Critics Think Minsky's Worth Raiding For Musical?

No doubt wistfully hoping for a Main Stem three-peat of sorts, Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group -- which hosted the launch of two would-be Rialto musicals that would go on to be Tony nominated for Best Musical: Bob Martin's The Drowsy Chaperone and John Kander and Fred Ebb's Curtains -- is currently producing the long-gestating, Broadway-aimed Minsky's.

With score by the venerable Charles Strouse and Susan Birkenhead, this new tuner is being touted as a good old-fashioned musical comedy. It also marks another collaboration for Bob Martin and Casey Nicholaw -- just as the former wrote The Drowsy Chaperone's clever book with the latter directing and choreographing, they possess the same credits for Minsky's.

If collaboration is the word, it may come as no surprise that their Tony-winning Best Featured Actress Beth Leavel is also cast in this production. Leavel is joined by a truly terrific-sounding cast, including Christopher Fitzgerald -- who is finally receiving his due as leading man in the eponymous role -- Kevin Cahoon, John Cariani and Rachel Dratch, along with two actors who made Hairspray's Edna Turnblad their own as major Great White Way replacements: Paul Vogt and George Wendt.

So far, so good, right?

Minsky's opened Sunday night and the reviews were, well, a bit skimpy on the praise. But as Michael Riedel points out, there's apparently enough, er, material there to keep moving forward -- albeit with some major tailoring -- to make it Broadway ready.

Leaving "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," The New York Times' Charles Isherwood practically damns with the faintest traces of praise: "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.... 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.... They call it burlesque, and the sequins are used a little more sparingly, but it feels a lot like plain-vanilla Broadway.... The short and slightly portly Mr. Fitzgerald makes an appealingly offbeat leading man in the tough-talking but soft-hearted vein.... Ms. Dratch and Mr. Cariani as the matched misfits almost steal the show with a sour-grapes duet, 'I Want a Life.'... On the whole the score is bubbly and pleasant, with an accent on brassy energy."

Calling the show a "nostalgic and not terribly authentic backstage musical," Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty also offers a mixed review: "[T]hough 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.... 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.... 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.... 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.... Leavel ... can be counted on for oomph.... An eccentric constellation of supporting players distracts from the musical’s more threadbare patches."

Despite declaring, "Irresistible throughout is the tuner's cavalcade of song and dance," Variety's Bob Verini also gives the show a mixed critique: "The potential of a tuner titled Minsky's ... is partly realized in its Ahmanson Theater premiere thanks to a strong Charles Strouse/Susan Birkenhead score and state-of-the-art musical staging by helmer-choreographer Casey Nicholaw. On the debit side are a thin, uninvolving storyline and curiously antiseptic take on the raffish art form the tuner purports to celebrate.... Irresistible throughout is the tuner's cavalcade of song and dance.... Aside from Leavel, tuner is light on top bananas and comics generally, though Paul Vogt, John Cariani and Rachel Dratch are amusingly off-kilter zanies. Fitzgerald juggles Billy's machinations with Mike Todd's brash vitality until he's turned cute and doughy by the love plot, which practically evaporates even as he and (Katharine) Leonard speak the lines."

Concluding that "the outlines of a well-shaped musical shine through," The Orange County Record's Paul Hodgins nevertheless lays bear what he sees as the show's shortfalls: "There are moments of great fun, inspiration and even brilliance in this show.... Indeed, on the level of simple entertainment it succeeds just fine. But in its present form, Martin's contributions to Hunter's original book result in touches of whimsy (mostly welcome) that don't always gibe with other parts of the tale.... The songs are one of Minsky's strong points.... They smartly capture the sass and verbal adroitness of the time and place.... Nicholaw captures the libertine spirit of classic burlesque with a few elaborately choreographed breast-baring (but not nipple-revealing) moments. Nicholaw shows us that Golden Age burlesque was primarily spectacle and as much a comic as an erotic diversion. I suspect Minsky's creators know there's plenty of work to be done.... The talented Beth Leavel is given too little to do as Billy's worldly sidekick, Maisie. Fitzgerald's performance is somewhat monochromatic."

I'll be keeping a close eye on this show as it continues making its long journey to Broadway. But right now, the Los Angeles production perhaps seems as far away from its end goal as possible.

UPDATE (2.13.09, 1:45 p.m. EST): According to Playbill, Minsky's will bow on the Great White Way sometime during the 2009-10 Theatrical Season.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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At 11 February, 2009, Blogger Rocco said...

hey bud, I deleted your comment to keep myself out of trouble.

Who are you...Perry Mason??

At 11 February, 2009, Blogger Esther said...

Hey Steve,
Thanks for the roundup. I'd seen some of these but not all of them. Personally, I'm rooting for Christopher Fitzgerald. I thought he was terrific in "Young Frankenstein" and it would be great to see him get to Broadway with a starring role. Plus, I think Kevin Cahoon is so funny on the cast recording of "The Wedding Singer." I'd love to see him on stage, too.

At 11 February, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, Like you, I'm rooting for Fitzgerald. And as for Kevin Cahoon, the guy is crazy talented.

At 13 February, 2009, Anonymous BroadwayBaby said...

I saw the show last night. It's much better than the critics would have you believe BUT it needs a lot of work-especially on the book which needs streamlining and better jokes. The cast is uniformly excellent- Cahoon and Fitzgerald are great.

At 13 February, 2009, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Appreciate the first-hand account, BB! Like I said, the cast looks like a winner to me. Here's hoping they'll retool it as needed and make it a big hit.

At 14 February, 2009, Anonymous Richard said...

I caught the show in LA last week and it was pretty weak!!!


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