As the nation reels from an economic downturn with no end in sight, the Center Theatre Group is mounting a show about survival set in Depression Era America. The man in the middle of the financial and political mayhem is Billy Minsky (Christopher Fitzgerald), a New York businessman whose burlesque theatre features plenty of on-stage skin and a boatload of fodder for an irate Councilman and his war on perceived smut. A world premiere musical comedy, Minsky’s offers fine acting, colorful costumes, dazzling sets and a book and lyrics that pay unapologetic homage to a bygone era of song-and-dance showiness. Warning: if chorus-line kicks and scantily-clad dancing dames aren’t your thing, Minsky’s isn’t the show for you.
Launching this boldly drawn, bawdy show is the song “Workin’ Hot,” a number that starts out deliberately void of zest until our titular hero barks out orders to the dancers and re-writes the lyrics on the spot, heightening the lackluster bit to a sizzling homage to sex (“What we do, we don’t do dressed!” Sayeth the showgirls).
Thus, we witness at the outset Billy Minksy’s main function – he peddles erotic pleasures, even though he’s deeply in debt and under more than a little pressure. Not only are his financial coffers thin, but he’s emotionally starved, as evidenced by the song “Someone”, a number that signifies exactly what one would think. Our boy needs a girl. Enter Mary Sumner (Katharine Leonard), a prissy blonde whose father Randolph (George Wendt) is running for city council, building his campaign on a holier-than-thou promise to topple Minksy’s spicy theatre.
The tug-of-war love story is cute, but it isn’t the main reason to see the show. The number one draw here is the stunning performance of Beth Leavel as Maise, Minsky’s right-hand woman in all things burlesque. Maise essentially runs the show, keeping the chorus girls in perfect step and making sure things are ship-shape come show time. Leavel plays the mother hen role with obvious experience and gutsy doses of wise-cracking showbusiness wisdom. She also has belting abilities that are enough to bring down the house.
In addition to Leavel’s acting, there are more than a half-dozen dance numbers by the Minsky girls that run from the ridiculous to the titillating, all of which are wildly fun to watch if your sense of humor is intact. A completely shameless ode to musical theatre clichés, Every Number Needs a Button, makes no bones about being a straight-up crowd pleaser, complete with routine-stopping canes and all-too-familiar suggestions for big-finish moments. Saturday Night Live’s Rachel Dratch does a great turn as the ugly duckling showgirl and the scenic design of Anna Louizos is delightful.
Hyperbole runs thick in this gleefully over-the-top musical, where good old pie-in-the-face gags still prompt knee-slapping and ear-to-ear grinning. Economic downturn be damned, at least for two-and-a-half hours.
Book by Bob Martin and directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, the creative team of The Drowsey Chaperone, winner of five Tony Awards in 2006.
At the Ahmason Theatre, through March 1. Call 213.628.2772. Tickets are $30-$100.