Entering the 45 Bleecker Theater for this gut-busting evening of barely-there entertainment is a lot like requesting an audience with the Burger King or the Dairy Queen: You’ll most likely leave bloated rather than satiated. This calorie-laden jumble of Altar Boyz, Toxic Audio, and trans fat, which has already had prior Fringe Festival and Off-Off-Broadway runs, is notable for at most two things: the talent of its performers (including the creators and writers, brothers Jeff and Charlie LaGreca) and a final 10 minutes that almost grant some depth to these viciously vapid proceedings.
There are no other identifiable reasons to care about the story of a quintet of geeky patty-flippers charged with indoctrinating a basement full of new employees (that’s the audience) into the totalitarian world of Happy Burger. The world-spanning franchise has its own theme song, its own questionable theories about nutrition and safety, and an owner more likely to be seen underwater or in orbit than within 10 miles of an actual burger. If you don’t learn all the basics (yes, there’s a quiz), the five workers will never escape in time for the a capella championship they’re sure they can win.
If not for the characters’ insistence on demonstrating the source of their confidence, you might well be tempted to swallow a French fry and end it all. After all, songs about sex with griddles, Connecticut as a South American travelogue, and Happy Burger’s violently bipolar mascot Kooky the Clown don’t exactly inspire the imagination, and have a habit of spitting out their half-jokes long after you’ve digested and forgotten about them. Director Guy Stroman does everything he can to inject energy into his staging, which proves about as effective as nuking a pound of ground beef in the microwave
Yet the actors, who both sing and provide their own a capella accompaniment, give the show an undeniable pull that keeps you involved even as your interest wanes. (When you’re watching a five-minute musical fable about an anthropomorphic fried potato, it tends to wane quickly.) The LaGrecas have collaborated with Sean Altman, late of Rockapella (the high-voltage, no-instruments band featured on the 1990s game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?), to ensure that the music you hear onstage is every bit as captivating as the music the Happy Burger disciples claim they can produce.
The actors do give the show a crackling musical texture that’s as much a celebration of the glories of the human instrument as the most of the rest of the show is a too-serious tribute to surface-skimming mock-musicals. Bass Tony Daussat’s snap-and-pop underscoring is a stirring basis for most of the melodies, which tenor Bill Caleo and soprano Elena Meulener have a smooth-toned knack for making sound better than they are. The baritone LaGrecas are character singers, more notable for their vocal resilience than their purity of tone, but have the strongest grasp on the fraternal nerds they’re playing — Charlie even scores a solo in the show’s only true moment of sweetness, a ‘50s-style tribute to the elusiveness of dreams near evening’s end.
It’s around that point that Minimum Wage becomes both adult and serious, with the five forced to face facts about their willingness to rot away in menial jobs while their aspirations wait for them outside. Smirking stupidity gives away to hope and encouragement as the show finally shows some willingness to let down its guard and say something of emotional consequence.
It clearly resonates in the cast, too; they’re never more engaged — or engaging — than when they’re singing about the importance of grabbing life by the collar. (That’s not the word they use, but it’s the same basic idea.) It’s nice to have a nutritious moment, even so late in the show, but it might be easier to swallow if the rest of Minimum Wage weren’t drowning in ketchup.