Book by: Bob Martin
Music by: Charles Strouse
Lyrics by: Susan Birkenhead
Original Book by: Evan Hunter
Christopher Fitzgerald (center). Photo: Craig Schwartz.
Once upon a time in America there was the Great Depression. Your parents or your grandparents have told you all about it. Maybe you even have some first hand recollections. If you happened to miss out on family history, today's media has a daily diet of reminders with comparisons to current economic conditions. One thing you do not hear so much about is how inexpensive, escapist entertainment flourished during the Great Depression. Burlesque was up there with movies by the likes of Busby Berkeley, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Earl Stanley Gardner gave up the practice of the law and became a prolific creator of engaging mysteries.
Even before America entered the World War I there was a Minsky's Burlesque house with the sign out front that said "Burlesque As You Like It -- Not a Family Show." The very first time it was raided was 1917. One of the dancers absent-mindedly began removing her costume before she hit the wings. The crowds went wild. Seizing the opportunity, Billy Minsky programmed the "accident" to happen every night and thus began the cycle of raids and the balancing act of keeping the show clean enough to avoid the police, but risqué enough to keep the audience coming.
A particularly infamous raid occurred in 1925; at that time girls were allowed to strip to the waist, but then they could not move. Madam Fifi (really a Pennsylvania farm girl) stripped to her waist and wiggled. It was the wiggle that crossed the line and brought the cops. This raid inspired the book The Night They Raided Minsky's, and in 1968, Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear produced a mediocre movie with the same title based on the book and full of top named stars. True to history, these were both set in the roaring 20's.
Minsky's at the Ahmanson is a project that has been in the works, or kicking around -- it might depend about how you feel about it -- for ten years without being produced. For reasons that would not have been clear ten years ago, when it was apparently written, the current iteration is set in 1930 and full of allusions to dire economic conditions. If only my financial advisor had been as prescient back then. The current economic climate gives some credence to the change in dates, but does little to revitalize the story. The recession however may make for a market that is looking for this kind of fluff. What is wrong with the theory that this is a story for our times is that the tickets are quite expensive. That is not how burlesque stayed in business in the 1930's.
What is to like? The legs were terrific, said a man on his way out. Anna Louizos sets and Greg Barnes' costumes were probably zanier and more polished than the original ones. The scenes where the girls wore costumes of bananas, (with the obvious allusion to the satisfaction can bring to a woman), or another scene cleverly staged with bathtubs and towels deftly manipulated, were funny and the dancing was true to the era and performed with skill and enthusiasm.
Musically? Yawn. There is absolutely nothing memorable. You may tap your toe now and then during the performance, but I dare you to remember a single song as you walk out after the performance. Although the Yorkin/Lear movie was not even as strong as the new stage production in terms of dance or costume, it had at least one piece memorable for both lyric and tune, "You're A Gentleman."
The point of Minsky's is to be comic and characters are to be a caricature, but with rare exception, neither writing nor acting reached that mark. Rachel Dratch, as the dull and drab daughter of the backer with the big bucks, was an exception. Throwing vanity completely out the window, as one must do to be a caricature, she was the quintessential talentless, awkward, sullen, clumsy, ugly duckling whose father wants to use his muscle to buy her a part in the burlesque and get her off his back whether she wants the part or not.
Beth Leavel (Maisy) is the aging former dancer whose life is burlesque and who takes Billy Minsky's ideas and puts them on the stage. Ethyl Merman she is not; she belts out her numbers but never manages to hit one out of the park. Christopher Fitzgerald did the best he could with the character of Billy Minsky, but the writing just does not sparkle.
So, where does this leave us? A generic big musical, it will undoubtedly get to Broadway and is just as likely to be a hit with the out of town bus tours. However, as entertainment for the times, Minsky's distracts, it amuses, but it lacks the power to linger. If you are still lighting your cigarettes with five-dollar bills, by all means go see it. If you have started watching those dollar bills a bit more closely, and like theater that gives you something to take away with you, save them up for something better.