New Musical Review
Minsky’s, at the Ahmanson Theatre
Media Update, 2/9. The show opened to generally tepid reviews -- so far. Surprisingly, The New York Times sent Charles Isherwood out to review the opening; he filed a kindly skeptical notice for its New York prospects. A dismissive review in the Los Angeles Times borders on a pan. A few blog sites are expressing keen enthusiasm.
LOS ANGELES, January 22 – Watching the powerhouse production numbers in this promising new tuner that lift it to Broadway heights, is much like watching an old movie musical whose songs and dances soar as high as its tediously silly dialogue scenes sink, leaving you waiting for the real stuff to resume. During the waits, to be sure, there is a fair amount of miscellaneous shtick, jokes and gags, some of which keep a sporadically plodding book from going under. What might it take to turn this promising vaudeville romp into a viable Broadway success? In its current condition, witnessed during the second night of previews, Minsky’s is in need of a major script overall. (According to program notes, the libretto is said to be an original.)
At the center of the musical’s “conflict” is self-serving city politician, Randolph Sumner (George Wendt), seizing an issue likely to be found in a risque troupe of Burlesque entertainers: They’ve got to be raided and shut down. The troupers are directed and goaded on with 42nd Street crackle by one Billy Minsky, played by actor Christopher Fitzgerald in a Robert Morse vein. Enter a not very convincing love interest when Summer’s uppity do-good daughter, Mary, essayed a little too wobbly here by Kathrine Leonard, accidentally meets the Minsky man. She comes across as a Woody Allen scripted Mia Farrow in the key of psycho-nerdy. The two share some pleasant though too pleasantly passive duets, and therein lies the problem. Minsky, fearing his new heartthrob will find out who he actually is, gets a staff member (the hilariously droll Boris, executed to perfection by Paul Vogt) to assume his identity. But this whole character identity thing is more belabored than engaging. Another disguise has Sumner going in drag so he can invade the cast. Rather than magnify the dramatic tension to match those sky-high dance workouts staged by director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, these threadbare plot contrivances trivialize it into a meandering smorgasbord.
At the top of the credits should go the team of Strouse and Berkenfield (that would be 80-year-old vet tunesmith Charles Strouse and Susan Berkenhead). These two, in lush collaboration, have delivered a sassy and relevant, rarely flagging slate of old-line show tunes. Only could their output include one or two more modern-styled ballads. Here is a score that older theatre buffs will tap their toes to; the younger set may find it, straddled to all the corny scripting shenanigans, a tad musty and yawnfull.
Fifty years ago on the Great White Way, the Minsky's that opened at the Ahmanson Theatre (the show was originally slated to go on the boards 10 years ago) might have done the trick with its gaudy bawdy gags and crackerjack songs. As it is, it’s a doubtful prospect without more savvy development. That may come, for all we know.
Show is loaded with Broadway-ready talent, all except for Leonard (or the character she must play). Christopher Fitzergerld gets the role right on, although he or the role tends to wear thin and one-sided into the second half; slyly amusing John Cariani produces, in tandem with Rachel Dratch, the score’s most memorably inventive gem, the anti-musical “I Want a Life.” Kevin Cahoon as piano tunesmith Buster is perfectly charming, and Beth Leavel (Maisie) is a Mermanesque asset. They've got songs to sing, they do, and these deliciously crafted numbers bear attractive shades of Kander and Ebb, Jerry Herman (in the truly thrilling “Nothing Lasts Forever”) and even a touch of Sondheim (“Home”) Only two tunes seem a little too modest for the rush of high-energy scoring — “Keep It Clean” and what feels like an obligatory romantic ditty, “Eyes Like that.” It’s the sort of a score that would make a good CD for those of a certain age.
Because of the disparity between the production dynamics and a plodding book, the show jerks and creeks in spots, and a few items are outright side-bar gratuitous, stopping a potential momentum cold in its tracks. Indeed, it seems as if the team felt obligated to honor a standard book it don’t really believe in. Were Minksy's to be told in a revue format, with one character (say, the Jimmy Durante-ish Gerry Vichi, a perpetually welcome clown) serving as narrator at intervals, and the plotting twists kept tautly in toe, this new musical might realize a more effective trajectory in style, unity and rhythm. And that’s what it needs the most. The producers might benefit by taking a look at the late Peter Stone's ingenious book for Will Rogers Follies.
In its current preview state, all problems point to book writer Bob Martin, also responsible for the generally workable though padded script that made a recent Broadway visitor, The Drowsy Chaperone, a multiple Tony award darling that left town after a modest run, by today's "hit show" standards, of 674 performances. He has his work cut out. Short of a return to the drafting boards, Minsky’s is more likely to be raided and shut down in L.A. than anywhere in the New York where it no doubt longs to go.
[One-time Variety contributor David Lewis is the author of Broadway Musicals: A Hundred Year History and Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals]