A Guilty Pleasure of a Musical!
In the early 90’s, the little town of Wabasha, Minnesota was “put on the map” thanks to the movie “Grumpy Old Men,” giving the area quite a boom in the ice fishing industry and a terrific boost of tourism in the frozen surroundings of the Minnesota Tundra.
The popular comedy was about two lifelong neighbors who let pride and ego interfere with their better judgment, and starred Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau and Ann-Margret. Rather than adhering to the “let bygones be bygones” philosophy, they spent the majority of their time at each other’s throats. The musical by the same name, which mirrors the movie, had its U.S. premiere at the Ogunquit Playhouse last summer.
Now presented by La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment, this engaging musical runs from September 20th through October 13th. The show is directed by noted Broadway veteran Matt Lenz, written by actor, award-winning screenwriter, Dan Remmes, with music by award-winning composer and lyricist, Neil Berg and lyrics by the late, award-winning lyricist and editor of MAD Magazine, Nick Meglin. Additional orchestrations were created by Phil Reno.
Assistant Direction is by Anthony C. Daniel, Stage Management is by John W. Calder III, Assistant Stage Manager is Lisa Palmire, Choreography is by Michele Lynch and Musical Direction is by Benet Braun. The Scenic Designer is Michael Carnahan, Costume Designer is Dustin Cross, Lighting Design is by Steven Young, and Sound Design is by Josh Bessom. Projections are by Jonathan Infante, Wigs, Hair and Make-Up are by Eb Bohks, and Technical Direction is by Chris Conrad. The Dance Captain is Joe Abraham.
The orchestra, Conducted by Benet Braun, also on Keyboard, includes Rhea Fowler as Lead Violinist, Sean Franz on Clarinet, Flute, Alto Sax and Tenor Sax, and Gene Burkert on Bari Sax, Tenor Sax, Clarinet and Bass Clarinet; Anne King is on Trumpet and Flugelhorn, Juliane Gralle is on Trombone, Jack Majdecki performs on Electric and Acoustic Guitar, Banjo and Ukulele and Dana Decker is on Acoustic and Electric Bass. Nick Stone handles the Drums, Brent Crayon plays Keyboard 2, and Eric Heinly is Orchestra Contractor.
Gregory North as Max Goldman, most recently seen in the star-studded “Into the Woods” this past summer at the Hollywood Bowl, and multiple Broadway award-nominee Mark Jacoby as John Gustafson play a couple of sprightly, septuagenarians who live in the kind of neighborhood where everybody spends all of their time either out in front of the house shoveling snow, or inside the house peering through their curtains. Neither John nor Max seem to have much else that holds their attention. Their lifeblood is trading insults, dismissals, supercilious sneering and dire imprecations. Then they go ice-fishing. Separately, but adjacently, so they can glare at one another.
"Moron," spits John at his lifelong oppugnant, with acid conviction. His hang-dog delivery underlines his every retort with espresso-bitter cynicism. “Putz!” is Max’s comeback to this, as if he thinks he has invented a clever new insult.
A cold war has lasted between both men for more than half a century, since Gustafson married the love of Goldman’s life—so long ago only they can remember it. In the intervening years, Gustafson’s wife has died, however, and Goldman has also become a widower. But time has done nothing to break up the enmity. What's clear is that playing practical jokes and tolerating each other's presence has become their shared retirement hobby, along with fiercely competitive ice fishing. What they don’t know is that this taunting comedy of insults and one-upmanship will be bittersweet, and any amusing frigidity now will soon be thawed by a heart-warming slushfront.
Their respective children, Jacob (Craig McEldowney, “Ring of Fire,” HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and Melanie (Ashley Moniz, “Kinky Boots,” “Sister Act” – National Tours) have grown up but still live with them. Their destinies in life have kept them apart up until now, despite an adolescent crush they've not outgrown. But one night, when Melanie is in her dad's house, and she happens to look out and notice that Jacob is gazing upon her from the house next door—well, in another neighborhood that might be cause to draw the shades, but here, it could be the beginning of a beautiful romance.
The slight drama in the show (if one can call it that) hails from the school of bash 'em rivalry—a comedy tradition at least as old as Punch and Judy, Laurel and Hardy, Biden and Trump—and it's a delight to watch these salty-tongued curmudgeons go at each other. Golden Globe/Tony/Emmy-Award winner Hal Linden (“Barney Miller”-TV, “The Rothschilds”) is the most enjoyable in this retirement village, as Grandpa Gustafson, John’s hoary, cantankerous father, whose every sexually charged word seems calculated to shock the town. It also seems an incongruous guilty pleasure to watch him talking so dirty. Every time Mr. Linden spoke, the theatre went wild with glee. "Throw away your watch! Life is all about living, cause tomorrow you may find your name across the obit page!"
And when redhead-on-a-snowmobile Ariel Truax (Leslie Stevens, “Grumpy Old Men” – Ogunquit Playhouse, “Lend Me a Tenor”) plows into town with a moving van crammed with New Age sculptures and moves in next door, John and Max are smitten. She is an art teacher transplanted from California, which gives her a mild, enlivening hint of spaciness. What’s more, this available, heart-thumping vamp likes to roll sensually in the snow after hot-tub sessions.
At first, both of them pretend not to be interested. However, when storeowner and fellow neighbor, Chuck (portrayed by Emmy/Grammy Award winning Ken Page, the voice of Oogie Boogie in “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” "Guys and Dolls"—Broadway), introduces them, John and Max's sexual appetites, which has layed dormant for over nineteen years, suddenly kicks in high gear, turning them into the lustful teenage foes they once were.
As Ariel becomes part of their daily lives, the two men find themselves jockeying for position for her attention and affection. Initially, Max seems to have the advantage, but the situation changes when Ariel, during an intimate date, confesses her feelings to him. Ariel's considerable assertiveness to both of them, as well as John’s increasing pressure from a nefarious IRS tax collector named Sandra Snyder (April Nixon, “Damn Yankees,” “The Dancer’s Life”) bring events finally to a moment of truth.
Impossible to go unnoticed is the dynamically comical, totally brilliant, Tony-Nominated Cathy Rigby as Punky Olander. Not only an Olympic champion, Cathy’s career has included 18 years as a sports commentator, a television career, many national and regional shows and Broadway runs of “Peter Pan” and “Seussical the Musical.” Her comedic timing is phenomenal and her vocals are a definite hit! She is joined by an ensemble of talented singers and dancers, including Fatima El-Bashir as the nurse, Jack of all trades John Battaguese and Neil Starkenberg, Allen Everman the dubious minister Tim, and avian addict Karla J. Franko. Heather Jane Rolff plays town gossip Fran, and Joe Abraham is Stan the polka champion.
Memorable numbers include the opener, "Wabasha," by the whole company, "Way To Go" by John, Max, Chuck and Grandpa, "Heat Wave," by Ariel and Ensemble, "Life is All About Livin'," featuring Grandpa, Stan and Harry, "An Angel," by Chuck, and "Our Friend is Gone," by the Ensemble. The number and later reprise by Cathy Rigby, tailor-made for her role as Punky, falls into a class all its own as she delivers "Your Own Home," in a spunky, zesty, full-of-life performance.
The success of this old-fashioned, character-driven slapstick isn’t just the rock-solid bickering combo. In a cast of scene-stealers, the ensemble plays the comedy and romance to perfection, with Director Lenz adroitly allowing their own professional canniness and individual characterizations at times to ensure that this grumpy hurrah remains natural and poignant. Much of that credit significantly belongs to scripter Dan Remmes. His compassion in his book for these now well-known characters eschews real sentimentality and provides a certain dignity even amid the ribald banter and utter puerility of the pension-age adolescents.
There are some interesting sub-plots as John is relentlessly pursued by Agent Snyder, the heartless IRS rep, out to confiscate his home. There is also Harry (Peter Allen Vogt, “1776,” “Dogfight”), the funny, accident-prone Mailman who seems to suffer numerous attacks on his daily routes, which would ordinarily hospitalize anyone else. "It was nothing!" he continually rebounds.
But now it’s turning spring in the Northland, and animus turns amorous, with a new lease on love for literally everyone. John and Ariel are hitched, Melanie and Max are an item —even feisty IRS Agent Snyder and bawdy Grandpa Gustafson seem to find a “loophole” relationship together in John’s tax burden.
Together, this cast represents generations of stage time and each of them brings a gift to their roles in a touching story at heart with humanity at its base, a story about living life to the fullest and finding inspiration wherever possible.
“Grumpy Old Men, The Musical” is now playing at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through October 13th; performance times and ticket information can be found at https://lamiradatheatre.com/current_events/broadway_series/grumpy-old-men/ Don't even think about missing it! This show will exceed all your expectations and then some.
The Show Report
Photo Credit: Jason Niedle