The potential of a tuner titled “Minsky’s,” with its promise of gorgeous gals, baggy-pants comics, hot dance and nostalgia, is partly realized in its Ahmanson Theater premiere thanks to a strong Charles Strouse/Susan Birkenhead score and state-of-the-art musical staging by helmer-choreographer Casey Nicholaw. On the debit side are a thin, uninvolving storyline and curiously antiseptic take on the raffish art form the tuner purports to celebrate.
As currently constituted, “Minsky’s” has little to do with what impresario Billy Minsky (Christopher Fitzgerald) actually purveyed to entertainment-hungry immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century. Bob Martin’s libretto barely touches on issues of ethnicity (Minsky’s sat above a legit Yiddish house) and class (it was called “the poor man’s Follies”) that permeate William Friedkin’s credited but almost wholly unutilized pic “The Night They Raided Minsky’s.”
Instead, Anna Louizos’ brightly painted drops and Gregg Barnes’ extravagant costumes — Ziegfeld himself would’ve killed for some of these trappings — offer generic showbiz pizzazz on the order of Martin’s play-within-a-play “The Drowsy Chaperone,” minus that gem’s ironic commentary. There’s more tawdry glamour and everyday bump-and-grind in act two of “Gypsy” than in the entirety of “Minsky’s.”
Tuner’s conceit is to infuse the offstage book scenes with the conventions of onstage shtick. Thus, Billy meets love interest Mary (Katharine Leonard) in an encounter with a blind man (Patrick Wetzel) and a crazily revolving door. Their separate shrink visits become “the psychiatrist sketch,” complete with Viennese accents, slamming doors and slapstick (though why Martin thinks we’d rather see a sharp operator like Billy mope about his love life than confidently wheel and deal is anybody’s guess).
The fusion of life and art leads to fast-paced fun much of the way, though lulls emerge during Billy’s battle with his beloved’s politician father (George Wendt, lacking true reformist zeal) crusading to close down public obscenity. And things get downright silly when Mary and dad dress up like chorines to infiltrate the enemy lair, but by then you’ve either bonded with “Minsky’s” or rejected its narrative altogether.
Irresistible throughout is the tuner’s cavalcade of song and dance.
Old pro Strouse comes up with a host of period-influenced tunes pleasingly bridging the gap between the 1930s and present-day tastes, while Birkenhead’s supple lyrics reinforce the burlesque milieu, especially in the risque, pun-filled “Red Hot Lobsters” (the girls in crustacean gear ready to boil) and the rousing showbiz anthem “Home,” delivered by the current queen of tuner anthems, Beth Leavel (always welcome as Billy’s sexless Joan Blondell sidekick, but this thesp needs a role worthy of her gifts pronto).
Meanwhile, Nicholaw masterfully builds each number from first verse to final chorus, whether onstage in the “Tap Happy” number irrelevantly but exuberantly opening act two or offstage in the mood-lifting “You Gotta Get Up When You’re Down,” running riot in a deli. His choreography brims over with surprise and wit, even including a dance break with both performers standing stock-still (not to worry, it makes sense in context).
Aside from Leavel, tuner is light on top bananas and comics generally, though Paul Vogt, John Cariani and Rachel Dratch are amusingly off-kilter zanies. Fitzgerald juggles Billy’s machinations with Mike Todd’s brash vitality until he’s turned cute and doughy by the love plot, which practically evaporates even as he and Leonard speak the lines.
The marvelous Gerry Vichi single-handedly conveys burlesque’s raised-eyebrow, take-no-prisoners air, yet even he can’t salvage a pie-throwing sketch with Wendt that starts unfunny and dies a slow death, a drop cloth daintily preset to catch the meringue. At the opening Vichi missed and almost hit Leavel, prompting the biggest laugh of the night. “Minsky’s” could use more such messiness.