Also see Sharon's review of Stormy Weather
The new world-premiere Broadway-bound musical Minsky's is the sort of show that makes you think all the other Broadway-bound musicals of the past year or so were just messing around. Because this is what a Broadway musical looks likethe big production numbers, the sweet love story, and the sheer entertainment of it all. Sure, Minsky's doesn't break any new ground, but it covers the old ground impeccably.
Cast of Minsky's
The plot, such as it is, follows Billy Minsky as he tries to keep his Depression-era burlesque house alive in the face of dwindling audiences and a politician who wants to "clean up" the city. Now, because this is a Broadway musical, Minsky's struggling theatre inexplicably features huge production numbers with expensive, although skimpy, costumes (exceptional design work by Gregg Barnes), and his performers are not only quite beautiful and talented, but also expert tap dancers. And, because this is a Broadway musical, we know that Mary, the prim and proper young lady with whom Minsky is initially smitten, will turn out to be the daughter of Minsky's politician nemesis. And we know that, somehow, by the end of the show, Mary will end up performing on Minsky's stage, most likely in a successful attempt to save Minsky's show.
But Minsky's doesn't come off like a worn retread of old material, and there are several reasons for this. First, Bob Martin's book adds just enough unexpected turns to keep the audience engaged. The forcible addition to Minsky's show of the producer's daughter, a small, quiet woman wrapped in a heavy overcoat, is not a surprisebut if you think she's going to turn out to be a born burlesque queen, think again.
But, beyond Martin's book, Minsky's also has the remarkable direction and choreography of Casey Nicholaw. Nicholaw's direction is, actually, the star of this show, more than any one performer. Dance numbers fill the stage with eye-popping choreography, which is often suggestively naughty in a good-clean-fun sort of way. Comic bitseven those that do not take place on the burlesque stagehave an old-fashioned burlesque feel to them, but are staged with such speed and verve, they get laughs every time. And the intersection between the twowhen the dance numbers go comicis pure gold.
Christopher Fitzgerald plays Minsky as sort of a Nathan Lane-type without all the neuroses. He's master of all the backstage insanity going on around him, but he never completely loses control (although his exchanges with Paul Vogt's character, who refuses to give him a complete sentence all at once, hilariously threaten to push him over the edge). He's got enough charisma to seem likeable, but not completely dominate the proceedings. And his voice is serviceable enough to make it through the love songs, although, to be fair, those are the weakest songs in Charles Strouse's otherwise lively score. Beth Leavel plays Maisie, who is both mother hen and dance captain to Minsky's girls, and is definitely a long-term fixture at Minsky's. Leavel gets the "rally the troops" song when times look grim for the theatre, and her bold delivery sufficiently rallies before she's done with the first line. And there's a notable supporting turn from Rachel Dratch as the very un-burlesque producer's daughter.
On the whole, Minsky's has only a very few missteps, which, unfortunately, are act-enders. The first act curtain number is a big, unabashed tribute to old-school entertainment, which manages to weave in a whole series of traditional comic bits. It's cut short by a moment of plot, but the company then returns to finish the number, as though the rather important plot development was just getting in the way. Minsky's company seems insensitive by finishing the number, and the plot point itself would provide a good enough ending to the act. But this pales in comparison to the problem at the end of the show, where the script unnecessarily turns wistful and bittersweet. There's nothing wrong with sentiment, but Minsky's has already covered that ground with Maisie's early number about how theatre is a family. Minsky's surely knowsindeed, it is often explicit about itthat there is a tremendous value to escapist feel-good entertainment, particularly in difficult times; it needs to end by providing it. Minsky's needs a finale that out-Minsky's itselfand if it gets one, it should be unstoppable.
Minsky's runs at the Ahmanson through March 1, 2009. For tickets and information, see www.centertheatregroup.org.
Center Theatre GroupMichael Ritchie, Artistic Director, Charles Dillingham, Managing Director, Gordon Davidson, Founding Artistic Directorpresents Minsky's. Book by Bob Martin; Music by Charles Strouse; Lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. Original Book by Evan Hunter. Scenic Design Anna Louizos; Costume Design Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design Ken Billington; Sound Design Acme Sound Partners; Hair Design Josh Marquette; Casting Telsey + Company; Associate Producer Neel Keller; Orchestrations Doug Besterman; Music Arrangements Glen Kelly; Technical Supervisor Peter Fulbright; Associate Choreographer Lee Wilkins; Associate Director Casey Hushion; Production Stage Manager Karen Moore. Music Director/Vocal Arrangements Phil Reno; Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw.
Photo by Craig Schwartz