Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Do you want to have fun? (fun?, fun?)

February 09, 2009

Beth Leavel and cast in Minsky's
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2009

Well, I suppose if you must, you could do worse than Minsky’s, the new musical from Bob Martin with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Susan Birkenhead. It debuted over this weekend at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown L.A. in a most eager-to-please fashion. (And it is certainly superior to the Ahmanson's other new musical Broadway contender this season, 9 to 5, that we were subjected to last fall.) Minsky's is set in a Lower East Side burlesque theater in the early 1930s and it deals with a litany of the most worn and cliché-ridden backstage scenarios. The unlucky theater proprietor, Billy Minsky, is at risk of losing his business due to the efforts of a prudish local politician whom he outwits while navigating a romance with the politician's daughter, a woman he has nothing in common with. Along the way are bright, hospitable musical numbers, with lots and lots of hoofing. It’s not poorly done, but it’s also never that enthralling either. The performances are quite good. Billy Minsky is played by Christopher Fitzgerald, recently of Young Frankenstein, and he’s able to keep the central character from becoming a complete cipher. The supporting women have an easier going with bigger results. Most entertaining is Bob Martin's Drowsy Chperone colleague Beth Leavel as Billy’s right-hand gal, Maisie. She’s got most of the emotional numbers—and the stage presence and chops to pull them off—putting more zing in the evening than anyone else. Then there is SNL alum Rachel Dratch as Beula, whose ineptitude and restricted affect become fodder for some of Minsky's genuine laughs. It's not unpleasant, but the whole never quite achieves the sum of its parts.

Perhaps what irritated me most about the show, though, is the central theme that in the toughest of times, everyone needs a place to let their hair down and laugh. Not that this is necessarily a bad sentiment, but the show so relentlessly bludgeons the audience over the head with the idea and how prescient it is today that it borders on the intolerable. By presenting this 1930s story in a manner that defends the show's own existence in today's theater scene seems more depressing than heartening. Yes, we get the idea that times are bad without being told again and again how we badly need to make ourselves feel better about it.

Still, I suppose some people might find this tuneful, though never quite memorable, show heartening on some level. If you don't find the idea of George Wendt in bad drag amusing, there is always the political angle. At one point, Billy Minsky asks his right-hand gal Maisie if it might not be better to forgo the burlesque business given the hard times. He asks if anyone with only two dollars to their name would want to spend one of them to sit in a hot theater and listen to old jokes. Maisie retorts that she would and that she would bring a friend. This exchange drew a spattering of hearty applause from the balcony when I saw it on Sunday night, which seemed appropriate given that just last Friday the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to prevent any of the bailout funds that President Obama has recommended from going to any arts organizations. Apparently the arts aren't stimulating enough in an economic sense in these difficult times. Sadly, while Minsky's may be an old trope, some people still haven’t got the message yet.


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