Theater Review: Minsky's

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Talk about timing. "Minsky's" takes us back to the beginning of the Great Depression, when burlesque was in its heyday and a cheap way to chase the blues. Remarkably, this new musical from Broadway veterans Charles Strouse (music), Susan Birkenhead (lyrics) and Bob Martin (book) was 10 years in the making, which means someone either was prescient or lucky. Or both.

Also in its favor, this is an old-fashioned book musical with a reassuring boy-meets-girl plot (even though the "girl" takes her clothes off before they finally get together) and a quiver of songs right on target for this kind of feel-good valentine. Birkenhead's lyrics are a particular pleasure, bouncy and brash in the best Broadway style and yet capable of a tender, sweet-natured sentiment when the occasion arises.

The soap-bubble story centers on impresario Billy Minsky (Christopher Fitzgerald), whose low-rent burlesque houses in the 1920s and '30s were popular enough to rival Ziegfeld's tonier Follies. For fast-talking Billy, it's tough doing business when you've got a bluenose politician like Randolph Sumner (George Wendt) breathing down your neck. When Billy falls for Sumner's equally bluenose daughter, Mary (Katharine Leonard), complications, as they say, ensue.

The story unfolds like a string of comic sketches in a burlesque house. It's a clever idea but only as good as the sketches are funny. Some of the bits promise more than they deliver, especially a couple of key ones in Act 1, and the rat-a-tat pace is a little hard on character development.

Act 2 allows us to relax into the story, and the show starts to jell. Fitzgerald is a likeable performer with the sort of New York edge and greasepaint heart the role demands. As "tightly wound" Mary, Leonard takes us on an entertaining journey from puritan to stripper. Wendt doesn't have much to do until Act 2, when he gets to play in drag and has to take more than his share of pies in the face. Ouch!

John Cariani and Rachel Dratch have a wonderful number, "I Want a Life," in which both sadsacks reveal they actually hate the theater. Coming on the heels of "Home," a touching love letter to the theatrical life, only makes their deadpan duet all the funnier. Beth Leavel is a strong presence as Maisie, the loyal stage manager.

Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw has staged the musical numbers with plenty of razzle-dazzle, eye-catching costumes (Gregg Barnes) and a bevy of fetching chorus girls. Although at first the show tries a little too hard to please, by the time Billy and company sing "Nothing Lasts Forever" near the close, the nostalgic feeling in the air is well earned and well received.

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (Through March 1)
Cast: Christopher Fitzgerald, Katharine Leonard, George Wendt, Rachel Dratch, John Cariani, Beth Leavel, Gerry Vichi, Paul Vogt, Kevin Cahoon
Book: Bob Martin
Original book: Evan Hunter
Music: Charles Strouse
Lyrics: Susan Birkenhead
Director-choreographer: Casey Nicholaw
Musical director: Phil Reno
Scenic designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: Gregg Barnes
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
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