(*homocinematically inclined)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reverend’s Reviews: Meet Me at Minsky’s

It’s taken more than ten years of development to get Minsky’s to the stage, but the timing of its world premiere (now through March 1) at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles couldn’t be more appropriate, perhaps even providential. Ten years ago, economic conditions in the US and abroad were certainly rosier than they are today. This musical adaptation of the largely forgotten 1968 movie The Night They Raided Minsky’s, set during the Great Depression, likely would have been regarded as outdated both in style and relevance.

Minsky’s now has relevance to spare. As more Americans lose their jobs and businesses close shop, the refrain of the show’s Act One showstopper — “You Gotta Get Up When You’re Down” — comforts as well as inspires. Legendary composer Charles Strouse, successfully teamed with lyricist Susan Birkenhead, is hereby confirmed as the go-to guy for Depression-era optimism. After all, he wrote the music for Annie, similarly set in the early 1930’s and which became a huge hit on Broadway during the recession-bound late 1970’s.

As much as Minsky’s has some serious things to say, one should note that the other key artists behind it are book author Bob Martin and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who previously brought The Drowsy Chaperone to the stage. They ensure that Minsky’s emerges as no less clever or hilarious a valentine to a bygone era in musical-theatre history, only here the object of their affection is burlesque.

It’s hard not to compare Minsky’s to its fellow Broadway-bound work in progress, 9 to 5, which also premiered in LA last fall. While 9 to 5 boasts considerable charms, Minsky’s is at this early stage the superior achievement. Its cast of pros — which includes Christopher Fitzgerald, Tony-winner Beth Leavel, George Wendt, Kevin Cahoon and, in a winning musical debut, comedienne Rachel Dratch — all know their way around the new genre of cinema-inspired musical comedy. And in Minsky’s, no one ever appears in danger of being crushed by an errant piece of scenery!

On opening night, neither Fitzgerald nor Leavel were in the best of voice but still managed to win the audience over. Fitzgerald, after a string of well-received performances in the original companies of Wicked, Amour and Young Frankenstein, ably proves himself a leading man as burlesque impresario Billy Minsky. Katharine Leonard also impresses as the conservative Mary Sumner, with whom Billy falls in love.

But the real stars of Minsky’s are Minsky’s girls. With such names as “Giggles,” “Flossie” and “Bubbles,” they completely evoke the artistic imperfection but dedicated spirits of the many women and men (the latter personified here by the wonderful Gerry Vichi) who made vaudeville and burlesque the entertainment of choice for many during a former, culturally — and economically — challenged time.

Nicholaw stages the girls and other company members wonderfully in opening number “Workin’ Hot,” the bathroom-set “Keep It Clean,” the patriotic “God Bless the USA” (definitely not to be confused with the Lee Greenwood song!), “Tap Happy” and the glorious finale “Nothing Lasts Forever.” In terms of sheer, sexually-suggestive hilarity, though, you can’t beat the opening line of the girls’ “Bananas.” Worshiping a Carmen Miranda-esque figure clad in the titular fruit, they proclaim, “We don’t need men when we’ve got bananas!”

Special mention must be made of Anna Louizos’ scenic designs, especially her spectacular “Bucharest Café” set, and Gregg Barnes’ period-perfect costumes. Their work is the sweet icing on the delectable cake that is Minsky’s.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.

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