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Theater Review

Gams it has, but little to stand on

'Minsky's' comes alive in its burlesque, but a plodding book holds

February 09, 2009|CHARLES McNULTY | THEATER CRITIC

"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.

"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. The show -- 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 -- 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.

Sure, 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 Minsky's 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.

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