“When we sing, we are not losers,” croon the cast near the end of “Minimum Wage.” Truer words were never spoken: this sometimes infuriatingly confused little 100-minute musical sports a plot-free book full of embarrassing improv-y set pieces. But a surprising number of songs in the tuner, which played in the 2006 New York Intl. Fringe Festival, legitimately kick ass, suggesting a greater earning potential buried beneath the shtick. In its current shape, “Minimum Wage” may be below the poverty line on brains, but some producer with a couple of bucks and a structurally savvy playwright pal could probably give the musically rich show a considerable raise.
The basement of 45 Bleecker is always a little scary — the deep, narrow space accommodates a modest number of seats and a vast expanse of plumbing and ductwork. For a set that’s supposed to be the the interior of a fast food franchise called “Happy Burger,” though, the grunge rings remarkably true.
The show opens with an uninspiring ode to the restaurant and a handout quiz that, we fear, may come back into play later in the show. Will this be an even lower-rent “Awesome 80’s Prom?” Then, however, the cast lays down the “Minimum Wage” theme song in four-part harmony with top-notch beatboxing by Orewell (Charlie LaGreca). It’s very catchy.
The whole crew demonstrates an incongruous discipline in its performance, suggesting they know how much better than the surrounding material this little number is. After the song closes, the show lapses back into slacker goofiness, with silly monologues and a plot somehow involving Happy Burger’s Bond-villainous honcho Linus Croak (admittedly a great name), which hasn’t spent enough time in the deep fryer.
And again, as we start to lapse into the familiar coma brought on by so many underthought Fringe refugees, there comes a really funny, improbably professional song, this time in the form of “G-R-I-L-L,” an uncomfortably sexual ode to the restaurant’s main piece of equipment.
The song gets the full ‘N Sync treatment from the band, with synchronized dancing and a very funny, suddenly oversexed turn from Bill Caleo as the lead in this number, Bradbury (all the play’s characters seem to be named after writers with seminal dystopian novels under their belts).
Once more, unto the breach of theater written by actors, with a cringeworthy slo-mo spatula sword fight that goes on. Much. Too. Long. But before total zonk-out arrives, we hit unsinkably cute Elena Muelener’s “Shake Your Booty With Danger,” which, despite some deeply stupid lyrics, is upbeat enough to tide us over until the beautiful barbershop quartet number, “Dreams,” making a hat trick of great songs.
The terrific final number, “Balls,” um, rounds out the evening, with the actors exhorting us to take our lives by the… well, you know. It’s hard to be sure where the plot has gone (outside for a smoke, perhaps) over the last hour and a half when the cast leaves the stage, but it’s certain that the show itself is a very heavily qualified success.
One very likely reason for this success is the involvement of Sean Altman, formerly of Rockapella, who is billed, with the LaGrecas, as co-writer of the flashily harmonized score. With the acoustic gymnastics of songs like “Dreams” and “Balls” to wow the audience, it’s easy to ignore the flaws and love the show for its eccentric charms. But imagine how much better it could be with a little discipline.