Musical adapts on its way to Broadway

A period musical-comedy about saucy entertainment conceived as an antidote to stock-market blues? The timing could hardly be better. And coming from the creator of “The Drowsy Chaperone” makes the show’s credentials even more tantalizing.

But now that critics have weighed in and been cooler than anticipated toward “Minsky’s,” what’s next for the 1930-set show?

Answer: heavy rewrites prior to an anticipated opening on Broadway in the summer or fall.

Reviews of the $11 million tuner were mixed following its Feb. 6 opening at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. But hardly any of the critics agree as to what needs revamping.

It’s almost exactly what book writer Bob Martin expected.

“(Director) Casey Nicholaw and I are compulsive rewriters,” he confesses. “The first preview was our world premiere. Broadway is the goal, which affects how this thing evolves. I see lots we need to work on.”

The show was conceived 40 years ago but has already changed in this new incarnation, Martin says.

“It originally took place in the 1920s, but we moved it after the (stock market) crash so the economic situation is one everyone can relate to today.”

Martin expects “Minsky’s” to evolve much like “Drowsy,” which he wrote and starred in and Nicholaw directed and choreographed.

That show bowed in Toronto in 1999 and changed 70% before its first major production at the Ahmanson in 2005. It altered again about 30% before it hit Broadway (where it played 674 perfs in 2006-07), was tweaked further for London and then once more for the North American tour, which kicked off in September 2007.

Martin considers the road version of “Drowsy” the best, but the point for him is that even with one or two major productions under their belt, large-scale musicals almost invariably remain works-in-progress right up to Broadway — and sometimes beyond.

Reviewers of the L.A. premiere of “Minsky’s” offered plenty of suggestions for the new musical.

Variety’s Bob Verini praised the Charles Strouse/Susan Birkenhead score and Nicholaw’s staging but found the storyline uninvolving and the take on burlesque “curiously antiseptic.”

New York Times’ Charles Isherwood wrote that the show “seems content to do the old steps in the old style, on the assumption that sentimental escapism presented with gusto and polish can turn the trick one more time.”

Charles McNulty of the Los Angeles Times said it was alternately delightful and bumbling, “coming alive mostly in the colorful burlesque sequences and taking a sharp nosedive when attempts are made to contain the parade of skimpily clad dancing girls and shamelessly hoary gags into a traditional book musical.”

“The regional reviews are of our first developmental production,” says Kevin McCollum, who, along with Bob Boyett, is attached to “Minsky’s” as a commercial producer. “The thing that makes a show grow is when you add an audience, and this was our first audience. And critics are a part of that audience.”

The focus for the L.A. run, producer Boyett has said, was on the production numbers. Like McCollum, he refers to the Ahmanson show as “our development production.”

McCollum, also the lead producer of “Drowsy Chaperone,” says there is no specific theater or start date for the Rialto, but he is encouraged by the media interest in the process of producing an old-fashioned show set in the Depression.

The idea for “Minsky’s” originated with Strouse, who composed the score for the 1968 film “The Night They Raided Minsky’s” (directed by William Friedkin, produced and co-written by Norman Lear). Strouse thought it would make a good musical. In 1998, the Ahmanson announced a July 2000 world premiere, which was canceled following the death of original director Michael Ockrent.

Boyett was among those who revived the project and reunited the “Drowsy” team of McCollum, Nicholaw and Martin. Initially brought in to punch up the book that Evan Hunter had written for the 2000 version, Martin and the composers rewrote the majority of the tuner.

“It was out of sync with the times,” he explains. “It didn’t fit well with the comedy style of today.”

While the film is still credited as source material, Martin says the show largely bypasses the screenplay and much of Hunter’s book, focusing more on impresario Billy Minsky’s life.

“Naturally, I consider it completely original,” he offers. Only two of the songs from the first planned Ahmanson version remain.

In its current form, “Minsky’s” draws a significant amount of its laughs from the humor of vaudevillians and burlesque comics. The comedy echoes W.C. Fields, Abbott & Costello and Burns & Allen. The production is structured like many backstage musicals, from “Kiss Me Kate” to “Curtains,” with behind-the-scenes action alternating with “onstage” production numbers.

The dance numbers are playful and showy, the costuming extensive and impressive.

Martin — who is working on a musical adaptation of the Will Ferrell comedy “Elf” as well as a Bee Gees tuner — still considers himself a theater outsider, with only two completed shows under his belt.

“I don’t claim to be an expert in the period when musicals commented on themselves,” he notes. ” ‘Minsky’s’ is an old-style book musical. In my limited experience, we have come in at the right time.”

He speculates that Julie Taymor’s reported $40 million “Spider-Man” next year might bring another shift to Broadway, back to mega-spectacles. But right now, Martin is betting audiences will be hungry for comedy and that the parade of scantily clad dancers will make “Minsky’s” a draw for straight men, often a resistant demographic on Broadway.

“Husbands liked ‘Drowsy,’ ” Martin relates. “I hope ‘Minsky’s’ is the same way.”

(Gordon Cox in New York contributed to this report.)

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