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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

My Mama told me to Keep It Clean.— Chorus Girls

Katharine Leonard and Christopher Fitzgerald in Minsky's
(Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Every musical in town lately seems to be either a revival or about a revival. Minsky's, our one new musical which just opened at the Ahmanson, exemplifies the latter. Based on Rowland Barber's book The Night They Raided Minsky's, it's struggled through many incarnations before finally hitting the CTG stage.

Billy Minsky's credo that the country in the midst of the 1930 depression wanted escapist undemanding fun strikes a familiar chord in today's audiences and he may be right again. The theme of a burlesque guy who falls in love with a reforming girl (think Mission Doll Sarah Browne in Guys and Dolls), along with the efforts of Minsky to evade being shut down, offers no surprises. Like burlesque, the most surprising moments in the show are when the chorine whips off her bra again.

Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw and Book Writer Bob Martin are veterans of the Tony-winning The Drowsy Chaperone which glorified 1920s musicals. This show lacks Man in Chair, the stage-struck lonely guy who gave Drowsy a soul, but it's true to form, both musically and in content which gives it a purity all its own on its own level. There are those funny/terrible vaudeville jokes, such as a cop's gun going off whenever the words spontaneous discharge are uttered and that pie in the face scene starring the commandingly comical George Wendt which we've seen a thousand times before but which Wendt makes as fresh as the joke is stale. Opening night one of the pies missed Wendt and hit Beth Leavel. I have a feeling they'll leave that in.

Charles Strouse who wrote the music hasn't come up with anything as memorable as his tunes for Bye Bye Birdie or his anthems for Annie but the B-list tunes seem appropriate for this B-list art form. The most delicious number is "I Want A Life " in which superbly nebbishy characters Jason (John Cariani) and Beula (Rachel Dratch) yearn to live where people don't sing or dance and where a house is a home, among other wonderful lyrics by the show's lyricist Susan Birkenhead.

The best part of the show is its revelation of show biz roots. The opening number traces the evolution of a drab song "Waking Up" to a Minsky-inspired "Working Hot" which climaxes (a word that just naturally comes to mind here) in the girls "getting into their costumes" by whipping off their dresses to dance in spangled mini-bikinis. It's a great opening number and is seconded didactically by "Every Number Needs A Button" which demonstrates such various kicky clichés as getting the hook, the bump, the plank, etc.

"Home" may be the most memorable song, not because of its music but because of its sentiment that for an actor the theater is home. It's a song that can be trotted out when something more sentimental than "There's No Business Like Show Business" ;is called for.

Nicholaw's bright brisk choreography includes a tap-dance number that opens the second act. At two hours 45 minutes, Minsky's could use some trimming and Act II, less strong than Act I, is the place to do it.

The show is a visual treat. Minsky may complain about Ziegfeld but this production out-Ziegfelds the Master with gorgeous costumes by Gregg Barnes and a scenic design by Anna Louizos that catches 1930 in its interior café scenes.

The cast is swell, headlined by Christopher Fitzgerald as a lovable Billy Minsky, Katharine Leonard as his pretty blonde sweetheart Mary, Tony-winner Beth Leavel in a dynamite performance as Billy's stage manager Maisie, Gerry Vichi as the elderly actor Scratch who, both in person and in character, carries stage history proudly on and George Wendt, who manages to be both sly and overpowering as the picketing politician who wants to get those naked ladies off stage forever.But not just yet.

Minsky's is headed for Broadway this spring to find out if, as Billy Minsky says of his beloved burlesque, "people are willing to sit in a hot theater and listen to old jokes."

Book: Bob Martin. Music: Charles Strouse. Lyrics: Susan Birkenhead. Original Book: Evan Hunter. Based on Bud Yorkin-Norman Lear production The Night They Raided Minsky's written by Arnold Shulman, Sidney Michael, Norman Lear, directed by William Friedkin, from the book by Rowland Barber
Director/Choreographer: Casey Nicholaw
Cast: Christopher Fitzgerald (Billy Minsky), Kevin Cahoon (Buster), Beth Leavel (Maisie), Megan Nichole Arnoldy, Roxane Barlow, Jennifer Bowles, Jennifer Frankel, Sabra Lewis, Ariel Reid, Angie Schworer, Sarrah Strimel (The Girls), Paul Vogt (Boris), John Cariani (Jason Shimpkin), Gerry Vichi (Scratch), Kirsten Bracken (Flame), Blake Hammond (Sgt. Crowley, Dr. Vinkle), Katharine Leonard (Mary Sumner), Matt Loehr (Dr. Vankle), Patrick Wetzel (Blind Man), George Wendt (Randolph Sumner), Philip Hoffman (Mr. Freitag, Judge), Rachel Dratch (Beula), Jeffrey Schecter, Stacey Todd Holt (Reporters), Ensemble: Megan Nicole Arnoldy, Nathan Balser, Roxane Barlow, Jennifer Bowles, Kirsten Bracken, Jennifer Frankel, Linda Griffin, Blake Hammond, Philip Hoffman, Stacey Todd Holt, Sabra Lewis, Matt Loehr, Ariel Reid, Jeffrey Schechter, Angie Schworer, Sarrah Strimel, Charlie Sutton, Patrick Wetzel
Scenic Design: Anna Louizos
Costume Design: Gregg Barnes
Lighting Design: Ken Billington
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Hair Design: Josh Marquette
Orchestrations: Doug Besterman
Music Arrangements: Glen Kelly
Production Stage Manager: Karen Moore
Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes, one intermission
Running Dates: January 21-March 1, 2009
Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Reservations: (213) 628-2772
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on February 6, 2009.
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Workin' Hot/Billy and the Girls
  • Cleopatra/The Girls
  • Happy/Billy
  • Someone/Mary, Billy, Dr. Vinkle and Dr. Vankle
  • Keep It Clean/The Girls
  • Bananas/The Girls
  • You Gotta Get Up When You're Down/Maisie and Ensemble
  • Eyes Like That/Billy and Mary
  • God Bless The USA/Maisie, Scratch and Ensemble
  • Every Number Needs A Button/Buster, Maisie, Billy, Scratch, Ensemble
Act Two
  • Tap Happy/Buster, Mary, Ensemble
  • Bananas Reprise/The Girls
  • I've Got Better Things To Do/Billy, the Waiters
  • Red Hot Lobsters/The Girls
  • Home/Maisie and Ensemble
  • I Want A Life/Jason and Beula
  • Workin'Hot Reprise/The Girls
  • Cleopatra Reprise/The Girls
  • Bananas Reprise/The Girls
  • Nothing Lasts Forever/Billy and Company
  • Home Reprise/Billy and Mary
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