(Los Angeles, CA - February 6, 2009) The world premiere of Minsky's, named for impresario-owner Billy ( Christopher Fitzgerald), is a lavish and rowdy, old-fashioned musical about a struggling New York burlesque house in 1930. The country is in the Depression, and audiences are scarce. No one can afford to buy a ticket. A religious-right-type politician, Randolph Sumner ( George Wendt), is trying to shut the club down. To add to Billy's troubles, he falls for Sumner's daughter Mary ( Katharine Leonard). Under the influence of her father, Mary is an uptight, sheltered priss.
Billy and Mary meet outside the office of their matching Austrian psychotherapists, where they have both gone to find out what's missing in their lives. Surprise, it's love. Already under attack by Sumner, when Billy learns she's the daughter of his nemesis, he tries to hide his identity as notorious club owner and show producer. To win her favor, he pretends to help her close down his own club. Sumner joins them, and they all agree to meet at a protest rally at Minsky's.
It's all very improbable, what with Minsky's cohort Boris ( Paul Vogt) in on the joke and pretending to be Minsky for the sake of the Sumners. They "convince" Boris (in his pose as Minsky) to change the tenor of entertainment to moralistic Americana. Billy and his showbiz pals launch a patriotic musical number to win over their conservative guests, even drawing an enthusiastic Councilman Sumner onto the stage with them. However, the red-white-and-blue costumes are specially designed for quick disrobing in a classic burlesque tease. When the flashbulbs go off, Billy and his pals pull a switcheroo on Sumner, as the big man stands there smiling next to bare-titted ladies.
You see, after much reflection and several soul-searching musical numbers, Billy decides he's a showman first, no matter how much he might love Mary. And by the end of the show, Mary Sumner completely changes her attitude, realizing that making people smile in hard times is a wonderful thing.
Minsky's has the feel of a big Broadway revival, with lots of singing, sexy chorus numbers, great costumes, plate throwing, tap dancing, and lots of schtick. This production adds the comedy stylings of Rachel Dratch (from Saturday Night Live) as Beula, a talentless waif foisted on the group, doing a variation of her hilarious Debby Downer character.
The comic bits all are classic cornball-sketch comedy with puns, sight gags, and innuendo. Silly and amusing stuff. The character Scratch ( Gerry Vichi) personifies the old vaudeville clown.
And for me, this was an introduction to the voice of Beth Leavel, who plays Maisie, the chorus mistress. When I heard Ms. Leavel sing, it made me think of Ethel Merman. I have never heard such a strong, expressive, powerhouse, belting voice. When she and the ensemble do the song "Home," it brought tears to my eyes as a fellow performer. Mary Sumner refers to the burlesque troupe as "you people." And Maisie gives it back to her, explaining in song how the theater is their home, exactly where they belong, and the only place they can live.
Other highlights of the show are the tap dancing by Buster, Mary, and the ensemble, as well as the choreography-complete with artful plate-throwing. Credit for masterful directing and choreography goes to Casey Nicholaw. There is one truly memorable romantic song, "Eyes Like That," sung by Billy and Mary. The chorus girls are charming, and the costuming (designed by Gregg Barnes) is dazzling-from the streetwear to scanty burlesque outfits.
The story is based on the 1960s movie, "The Night They Raided Minsky's," starring Elliott Gould as Billy. The movie, in turn, was adapted from a book about the real Billy Minsky, circa 1917. The story in the book highlights the evolution of burlesque as a bawdy show, in contrast to the dying form of vaudeville, which was, by and large, clean family fare.
In times like ours, as well as then, a good laugh, with some light entertainment, can help feed the soul. It's a fun night out, and seeing George Wendt in drag and getting pies in his face about fifteen times will make you laugh out loud.
Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.
Photos by Craig Schwartz
Center Theatre Group
601 W. Temple Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
213 628 2272
February 6 - March 1 2009
Tues. - Sun. 8pm
Sat. - 2pm
Sun. - 1pm