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ahmanson, taper-ahmanson, mark-taper
Doctor: “My nurse always gets things mixed up.”
Man: Runs across stage, holding his crotch.
Nurse: Comes out of door, “But Doctor, I though you said to prick his boil.”

And friends, I give you burlesque.

I mention this because today we went to the Ahmanson Theatre to see the world premier of the new musical comedy “Minsky’s, with book by Bob Martin, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, adapted from the original book by Evan Hunter, based on the movie “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” by Arnold Shulman, Sidney Michael, and Norman Lear. This world premier was a while in the making: the original movie came out in 1968, and the musical version was originally scheduled for the 1999-2000 Center Theatre Group schedule. This means a long-gestation, historically troubled show. This is not to say it isn’t a good or entertaining show, but I’m not sure it would be ready to survive on its own on Broadway, especially against what is out there today.

Minsky’s” tells the story of Billy Minsky and his show at the National Wintergarden Theatre in New York in the early 1930s, when the depression was driving down theatre business, vaudeville had died, and burlesque was dying as well. This would be roughly the same time period as “Gypsy”, as vaudeville was turning into burlesque and then into the strip clubs. Minsky is trying to keep his show alive and his cast together in the face of a crusading politican who wants to get the smut out of the Lower East Side (did someone say “Tenderloin”... no, I guess not).... and complicating matters is the fact that Billy has fallen in love with this politician’s daughter (which, as nsshere noted, is like “Urinetown”). So, the story is how does Billy save the theatre, embarass the politician, and get the girl. Surrounding this all are a bevy of burlesque dancers, the requisite Catskills comic, the experienced show manager (think Lottie from “Mack & Mabel... again, about the same time), the duo in the theatre that has no talent, the policemen whose guns tend to go off prematurely, and the stuffy politician in drag.

Does it work? Sort of. The underlying story, which does work through songs such as “Every Number Needs a Button”, “Home”, “I Want a Life” and “Nothing Lasts Forever”, play a wonderful homage to the theatre and theatre life, and reminded me a lot of “Curtains” (of these, “Home” is recorded on The Musicality of Strouse). The songs related to the love story also worked, such as “Someone”. A number of other songs, however, are more novelty numbers (as was common in the theatre in the 1930s) that are simply part of the burlesque show. These are entertaining numbers (such as “Bananas”, otherwise known as “Why do you need a man when you have a banana?”), but they don’t really advance the story: they stop and entertain. In these numbers, the show was part “Drowsy Chaperone”. So the show worked and didn’t, and was sort of muddled in its direction. If I was a show doctor, I’d cut down some of the novelty numbers that don’t relate to the story, and musicalize some of the other sequences (for example, it would be great if the pie-in-the-face number with the comic Scratch and Randolph was musicalized).

There are also some side stories that are given short-shrift, such as the romance between Jason the bookkeeper and Beula, the producer’s daughter with no talent. In fact, Beula’s role needs something more to make her more than the throwaway comic-relief character that she is. She’s a character the audience wants to root for, and nothing comes of it.

So, in short, story-wise, there is some work to go. It’s not a bad show -- we found it quite entertaining -- but in order to be a top-notch show it needs more. Right now (especially with some of the Borscht-belt jokes) it would succeed in South Florida or Banson MO... but I don’t see it succeeding with today’s New York audience. “9 to 5”, “Sister Act”, or even “Mask” would be much more successful.

Casting and acting wise, the show was top-notch. In the role of Billy Minsky was the talented Christopher Fitzgerald. He was a strong actor and dancer, and carried the frentic Minsky well. Beth Leavel was Maisie, the veteran stage manager -- a strong singer and dancer known well for being the chaperone in The Drowsey Chaperone and Frau Bleucher in Young Frankenstein. I really enjoyed her strong skills. Minsky’s love interest, Mary Sumner, was played by Katharine Leonard (who was also in “Prop 8: The Musical”) -- where she sang, she was strong, but her skills were more on the comic and love interest side. Moving to the comic side, Gerry Vichi played Scratch, the comic, seemingly channeling Fyvush Finkel in an effective way. Lastly, of the major leads, George Wendt was underutilized as Randolph Sumner, the crusading politician -- he had no number of his own, and his comedy was more forced.

Turning to the secondary roles: John Cariani was effective as the bookkeeper Jason Shimpkin, and it was interesting to watch his interaction with Rachel Dratch, whose comic abilities were underutilized as Beula, the producer’s daughter. Paul Vogt was effective as the taciturn Russian Boris. Others in the case included Kevin Cahoon (Buster), Megan Nicole Arnoldy (Sunny), Nathan Balser (Ensemble), Roxane Barlow (Giggles), Jennifer Bowles (Curls), Kirsten Bracken (Flame), Jennifer Frankel (Sylvie), Linda Griffin (Ensemble), Blake Hammond (Sergeant Crowley, Dr. Vinkle, Waiter), Philip Hoffman (Mr. Freitag, Judge), Stacey Todd Holt (Reporter), Marc Kessler (Swing, Asst. Dance Captain), Sabra Lewis (Flossie), Matt Loehr (Dr. Vankle), Ariel Reid (Bubbles), Jeffrey Schecter (Reporter), Angie Schworer (Ginger), Sarrah Strimel (Borschtie), Charlie Sutton (Ensemble), Jennifer Werner (Swing, Dance Captain), and Patrick Wenzel (Blind Man). As you can see, a large cast.

[Note: All actors are members of æ Actors Equity.]

Turning to the technical side: the set (designed by Anna Louizos) was an interesting amalgam of flying pieces and wing pieces, and was very effective in conveying the mood (I especially appreciated the ghost light at the end). The effective lighting was designed by Ken Billington: it set the mood great, it used spots and moving lights great, and was, so to speak, spot on. The costumes by Gregg Barnes (article on costuming “Minsky’s”) and hair design by Josh Marquette were effective and fun to watch ... especially the outlandish costumes chosen for the comic, and the creative exposure of the costumes of the Minsky girls. The sound design by Acme Sound Partners was clean and clear. The orchestra was a delight to listen to, with orchestration by Doug Besterman, musical arrangements by Glen Kelly, and a 17-piece orchestra conducted by Phil Reno. The production was directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, with directorial assistance from Casey Hushion and choreography assistance by Lee Wilkins. Technical supervisor was Peter Fulbright. Karen Moore was production stage manager, with Rachel S. McCutchen and Susie Walsh serving as stage managers. Michael Ritchie is the artistic director of CTC.

Minsky’s continues at the Ahmanson until March 1, 2009. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson; select dates are also available half-price through Goldstar Events. If you want to contrast this with the LA Times review, you can find their review here.

Dining Notes: For lunch, I decided to try an oldie but a goodie: Clifton’s Brookdale downtown. The food was satisfactory, but I didn’t expect more (being a cafeteria). However, the decor and ambiance was fascinating. Decorated like an old Yosemite lodge, with an old dining room upstairs with the history of the original Clifton’s. The family has been runnning cafeterias since 1888, and this Clifton’s has been open since 1935.

Theatre Calendar Update: Next Sunday takes us to Burbank and “Candida” at the Colony Theatre on 2/15 @ 2pm. The following weekend is Pasadena , where on 2/21 @ 8pm we have “Stormy Weather” at the Pasadena Playhouse. March will also bring “Little Shop of Horrors” at Van Nuys HS (it is running March 12, 13, 14 and 19, 20, 21 -- let me or nsshere know if you want tickets). Sometime between 3/13 and 4/11 we’ll be seeing “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” at Rep East, and hopefully the end of March (perhaps 3/22 or 3/29) will bring “Frost/Nixon” at the Ahmanson... HotTix should be available around 2/18. Turning to April, April 4 @ 2pm will bring “42nd Street” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, and April 18 @ 8pm will bring Mauritius at the Pasadena Playhouse. Other late April/early May shows of interest are “Is He Dead? at ICT Long Beach (4/28-5/24); and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at Theatre League Thousand Oaks (4/28-5/3). May has nothing ticketed yet, but shows of interest include “big” at West Coast Ensemble (5/9-6/28); and “The Green Room at Hermosa Beach Playhouse (5/19-5/31). Additionally, the end of May brings “Fiddler on the Roof” at Nobel Middle School, where nsshere may be involved with the lighting design.

Look, some guys like to splurge on football or sports, and other folks go to the movies. I love live theatre!


( 1 observation — Leave an observation )
Feb. 9th, 2009 06:27 am (UTC)
Thanks for your review!! I see this on Saturday! :) I'm looking forward to this primarily to see Christopher Fitzgerald (who I LOVED in YF). Glad to hear that he was great. And all I remember about Roxane Barlow was that she was the dancer with the pearls in Thoroughly Modern Millie the zillions of times I saw it on BW... ;)
( 1 observation — Leave an observation )


Daniel the California Highway Guy
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"Observations Along The Road" is Daniel's (cahwyguy's) home for journaling. Daniel is a mild-mannered computer security specialist with interests in a wide variety of things, especially live theatre, highways, Judaism, history, and off-beat news. You can also find him on Facebook.

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