As part of the lyrics for his acclaimed 1939 “hit parade standard”, “Friendship”, songwriting legend Cole Porter wrote: “It’s friendship–friendship! just a perfect blend-ship; When other friendships are soon forgot, ours will still be hot…” In contrast, the irascible “alliance” at the core of “Grumpy Old Men—The Musical” is nothing like that!
Now, as the inaugural show of their 2019-2020 season, “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts”, in association with McCoy-Rigby Entertainment, is presenting the West Coast Premiere of this raucous new musical that emphatically puts the ‘comedy’ in “Musical Comedy” (–even the overture will set your toes to tappin’!) Indeed, save for a previous production (in Maine) this could well be considered nearly a World Premiere, featuring a book by Dan Remmes, (adapted from the 1993 Warner Bros. motion picture written by Mark Steven Johnson,) music by Neil Berg, and lyrics by Nick Meglin, (with additional orchestrations by Phil Reno.) This new production is directed by Matt Lenz, with choreography by Michele Lynch, and musical direction by Benet Braun.
At turns hilarious, while at others startlingly affecting, many of the best lines or crucial plot-twists delightfully take you off guard, making their impact lingering and lasting; so if, now and again, it seems a little episodic or fragmented in nature, it’s only because this stage musicalization is so much bigger, and offers so much more than its cinematic source material! Remmes script is overflowing with quick-witted gags and sly word-puns: “You couldn’t get hard if you went over ‘Viagra Falls’!” John spits at Max; “Your face makes onions cry!” Add to it how the entire show is jam-packed with likeably nutty characters that manage to make this one off-beat and hysterical—but honestly touching besides. This is possible because in re-imagining the blockbuster movie for the musical stage, Remmes has wisely taken the focus off the film’s series of slapstick pranks the guys repeatedly play on each other and puts the more substantial relationships front and center. Lenz’s direction takes advantage of these strengths–creating a production that is fast moving and brisky flowing with literally never a dull moment. Ms. Lynch’s choreography too, while portioned out in smaller segments, nonetheless adds an appealing vibrance and variety to the goings-on. (She even employs two ensemble members—Allan Everman and Karla J. Franko as a perpetually argumentative couple named “Tim” and “Unis” to signify the scene changes via a series of dexterous steps that has them literally ‘dancing’ one set off and into another.)
Set in Wabasha, Minnesota (“The Best Little City In The U.S.A.” a sign atop the proscenium arch informs us,) the ensemble of ‘townspeople”, exhibiting superb choral work throughout, act as a kind of “Greek Chorus”—helping to mark the progression of time as well as to comment on the action. Their opening–“Wabasha” celebrates the feeling of community and affability in their “friendly town’ (which always seems to be beset with snow—regardless of the time of year.) “We’re thick as glue” the buoyantly proclaim, before informing us that our two titular heroes have spent five decades “Living nose to nose” but neither can stand the other! Subsequently, it’s our chance to meet these middle-aged fogies: “John Gustafson” and “Max Goldman”, who are long time next-door neighbors by location, best ‘Frenemies” by choice (“Moron!” “Putz!” they continually catcall each other.) Their feud began as teenagers 50 years before, when they feuded over the attention of a girl both had a crush on. Imagine what happens then, when their day-to-day routine gets shaken up with the arrival of “Ariel Truax”–a slinky, sassy, new lady who comes to town and instantly catches the eye of each of these cantankerous old competitors! Making her entrance on a snow mobile, “Ariel” is a free-spirited, youthfully middle-aged, literature professor at the nearby college, who moves in just a few doors from them. (Even John’s libidinous, wise-cracking 94-year-old father, “Dad Gustafson” who lives with his son, has plenty to say regarding her many fine ‘assets’!) Afterward, we’re introduced to “Chuck Barrels” and his newly arrived cousin “Punky”—the proprietors of “Barrel’s Bait Shop And Apothecary’ (for all intents and purposes, the local “General Store”,) whose chief stock-in-trade seems to be supplying even further boisterous laughs (and a few thoroughly pleasing musical numbers too!) Although it isn’t until the latter half that the whole ‘rivalry’ plot really takes off, once it does, it’s unconventional but sincerely sweet, ensuring that by the curtain calls, odds are you’ll be challenged to elicit a smile large enough for what you’ve just experienced!
As “John Gustafson”, Mark Jacoby gives us a not-so-disagreeable, fairly identifiable, everyman who is just trying to do his darndest with what life has flung at him. He particularly shines with his jaunty and melodic ‘soliloquy’, “When No One Is Around”, as he takes time to savor his one stalwart companion over the years–his piano! Ironically though, for all its cheeriness, this is also where we learn how “John” is behind the eight-ball with IRS to the threat of $18,000 smackers, due to his continuing to file joint-tax returns even after his wife’s passing (“As a wife, she was a very good mother…” John confides to his daughter when contemplating the less-than-blissful ‘wedded-bliss’ he and his late wife actually had.) In the second act, he sings to his not-so-dearly-departed wife’s grave, telling her of his insecurities concerning the thought of striking out on a new ‘liaison’ of any kind at his age, with his reprise of “An Angel”, making for a genuinely poignant moment. Opposite “Ariel”, their shared Act Two chanson, “The Mirror Lies” is sumptuous and satisfying–as the pair admit to that one another that each just may be the soul-mate they’ve been looking for. (Then, to top it off, they waltz off together into the scene change adding a nice bit of charmingly sentimental “punctuation” to the entire intermezzo!)
Joining him as the other irritable geezer of the title, Gregory North is the more earthy “Max Goldman”. For all his outward bluster, underneath is a unfalteringly magnetic singing style and strong stage presence, which he handily demonstrates in the numerous numbers Max is a part of. Solo-wise, after intermission North vibrantly re-launches things with “In Like Flynn”, as “Max” ‘officially’ stakes his claim on the “Ms. Truax”, (only vaguely cognizant that she probably is not the lady for him.) Try as he might to purposely overlook it though, soon it’s clear that “Ariel” is a bit too ‘out there” for his staider and starchier pace and personality. Opposite Jacoby, their shared duet “I Like The Way Things Are” (sung to their corresponding grown offspring,) tells us how stubbornly set in their ways our boys are: “New isn’t better I have learned; don’t play with fire you won’t get burned!” they croon. As the hotly contested ‘object of their affection’ (and reckless rivalry,) Leslie Stevens is spot-on as “Ariel Truax”. While she doesn’t appear until nearly half-way through the first act, by the opening verses of her preliminary descant, “Heat Wave”, she swiftly validates how lively a spit-fire (not to mention how potent a singer) this gal truly is! There’s even a polka phrase thrown in that’s quickly followed by a brief but saucy tango! This quickly expands into a groovin’ group interlude seasoned with some brilliant ‘power-notes’ gratis Ken Page as “Chuck Barrels”. Stevens also thrills leading the Act Break, “Opportunity Knocks” which starts out on the somewhat intimate side, but quickly swells into another dynamic collective effort involving the entire company, ending with both “John” and “Max” now determined to woo and win “Ariel” for themselves!
Broadway Veteran and all-around showbiz Icon, Hal Linden is the outlandish and outspoken “Dad Gustafson”. Hal tickles our funny-bones all through the proceedings with mischievous one-liners and crafty double-entendres, displaying magnificent comic timing as he spins his most “knowing” zingers or bits of innuendo just right, so that they hit their marks with glowing sardonic resonance; however he absolutely gets his ‘moment’ with “Life Is All About Livin’”, as “Dad” advises his son “John” about love in life’s advanced years. It’s a robust and rollicking number that showcases this bona-fide Broadway Giant wonderfully: “Are you finished?!” “John” queries at the song’s conclusion; “If you have to ask her that, you did it wrong!” the elder man replies. (In the show’s final moments, “Dad” also furnishes the best “surprise/shock ending” of every one on stage!) Meanwhile, Cathy Rigby is a first-class scene-stealer in her own right (in all the best and most side-splitting ways of course,) as the dim but endearing “Punky Olander”.
That Rigby is very capable at getting the most out of good song-and-dance routine, is well established, but she proves once again in this instance, what a top-of-the-line Comedienne she is to boot! In fact, it’s the very “Puckishness” of “Punky” that suits Ms. Rigby to a “T” (–that’s “T” for terrifically talented!) Popping in and out of the action, she gets some of the script’s best laugh-lines–or sometimes it’s a sight (or sound) gag, as occurs with her bubbly little ditty “Your Own Home” where “Punky” ‘accompanies” herself on an imaginary banjo and throws in some yodeling for good measure (At one point she even does the splits!) Ken Page is also remarkable as her store-owner cousin, “Chuck Barrels”. Page too, is already renowned as a humongous stage-talent with a flawless vocal ability, and on this occasion, he certainly doesn’t disappoint either (—and can this guy ever create on-stage magic with a great tune or sensitive refrain!) Outstanding in a role that basically has him cast as everybody’s best buddy and confidant, he dazzles with “Chuck’s” lyrical musing, “An Angel”—sung in praise of “Ariel” as he reminds our hapless heroes of how a woman of her rare caliber doesn’t come around all that often. Prior to this, Page, North, Jacoby, and Linden have a jazzy quartet loaded with hilarious lyrics titled “Way To Go”, as they compare their life philosophies while out on a frozen lake, ice fishing (–decidedly a very popular pastime in this show!)
Carrying the romantic subplot are “John” and “Max’s” son and daughter respectively, portrayed by Craig McEldowney as the genial, refreshingly just-this-side-of nebbishy boy next door, “Jacob Goldman”, while Ashley Moniz is “John’s” spunky daughter, “Melanie Gustafson Norton”. Together, they make “Parents And Paradise” an electrifying duet, wherein each contemplates moving away to opposite coasts—not (thus far anyway) stopping to realize that true happiness and the dream-relationship they’ve both been searching for is (and always has been) right there over the garden fence! April Nixon also provides stupendous support as I.R.S. Agent “Sandra Snyder”. The closest to a true Villainess this piece has, (think of her as the Government’s answer to “Nurse Ratched”, seething with hard-bitten avarice over and above an unsettling seductiveness,) Nixon is similarly gifted with a high-octane voice (and the equally stunning talent to wield it!) She gives “Snyder Comes Along” a pristine delivery accompanied by some sultry maneuvering–making this one a categorical Act One show-stopper (This lady knows how to impress–and she sure enough does it here!) Better yet is the way the number completely sneaks up on you and then sets your jaw a’droppin’ with its sheer dynamism! Enthusiastic kudos also go out to Peter Allen Vogt as “Harry”, the town’s accident-prone sad-sack of a mailman who dispatches his own brand of buffoonery as he stumbles out of one comedic misadventure after another.
A highly entertaining, life-affirming, feel-good fiesta of a new show, YOU’LL be the winner when these “Grumpy Old Men” are around! Having opened on Saturday, September 21st, “Grumpy Old Men—The Musical” is set to run through Sunday, October 13th, 2019 at “The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts”, located at 14900 La Mirada Blvd in La Mirada California. Showtimes are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 PM; Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM; with Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM. (Likewise, there will be an ASL-interpreted performance on Saturday, October 12th at 2:00 PM, while “Talkbacks” with the cast and creative team will be on Wednesday, September 25th, and Wednesday, October 9th, after the performance.) Tickets may be obtained online, by logging on to “The La Mirada Theatre’s” website located at: www.lamiradatheatre.com , or by calling “The La Mirada Theatre” Box-Office at (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310. (Student, Senior and group discounts are available for this engagement while special discounted “Student Rush” tickets are also available for the first 15 performances of this production.)
Production Stills By Jason Niedle, Courtesy Of Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And McCoy-Rigby Entertainment; Special Thanks To David Elzer At Demand PR, Tom McCoy, Cathy Rigby, Matt Lenz, Michelle Lynch, Benet Braun, Jarod Millsap & To The Cast & Crew Of “The La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts” & McCoy-Rigby Entertainment’s 2019 West Coast Premiere Production Of “Grumpy Old Men–The Musical” For Making This Story Possible.