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Minsky's and the Art of Burlesque 

Dick jokes and pasties in church

Wednesday, Feb 11 2009
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The raid of Minsky’s Burlesque house on New York’s Lower EastSide in 1925 — initiated when dancer Mary Dawson removed her top and allowed her bare breasts to sway — was the basis of William Friedkin’s 1968 movie, The Night They Raided Minsky’s. Turns out, the whole thing was a publicity stunt by club owner Billy Minsky in order to draw better crowds to his club, which presented a genre of entertainment that was on the ropes at the time — wedged between moribund vaudeville and burgeoning Broadway. From a business standpoint, it was a pretty good stunt, one that propelled a whole new audience to the club.

Bob Martin, Charles Strouse and Susan Birkenhead’s new musical, Minsky’s, at the Ahmanson (original book by Evan Hunter) bears as little resemblance to the film (it makes no claim to be an adaptation) as it does to the historical record. The time has been flung forward a decade from the Roaring ’20s to Depression Era ’30s, presumably to ramp up its relevance to our own hard times — which are echoed in lyrics sung by chorus girls: “Everyone wants an escape now/The country’s in terrible shape now/Every time another bank fails/we go and polish our nails.”

This is the story of Minsky (Christopher Fitzgerald) and his love-hate affair with the daughter (Katharine Leonard) of the prim city councilman (George Wendt), who’s on a morality crusade to shut down all the burlesque houses in town. Minsky’s is a clever, romantic musical that ambles along in no particular direction on the power of its charm, until it tries to fool us into believing that its pedestrian ambitions contain some higher purpose. That’s when it just gets annoying.

click to enlarge CRAIG SCHWARTZ - Flesh palace on the Lower East Side
  • Craig Schwartz
  • Flesh palace on the Lower East Side

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For a Depression Era musical set in and around the tawdry Winter Garden Theater on the Lower East Side, this is an oddly opulent Art Deco extravaganza, with Anna Louizos’ set of panels inscribed with New York cityscapes that roll and fly, with an ensemble numbering in the dozens attired in Gregg Barnes’ glittering costumes. This doesn’t exactly look like the product of the plummeting box office that we hear so much about in the musical. And wasn’t this the era when Bertolt Brecht was showing us how to use grunge to stir passions and ideas from the soup of poverty?

There’s nothing incongruous, however, about Strouse’s appealing music, and the vaguely jazzy resemblance it bears to John Kander’s songs in Cabaret and Chicago. The music is stylishly supported by director Casey Nicholaw’s charm-laced staging and sassy-satirical choreography.

A 7-year-old girl named Gwen who was sitting beside me collapsed in paroxysms of laughter at the pre-P.C. shtick of a Blind Man (Patrick Wetzel) who, after being directed from the street inside the building he was looking for, kept re-emerging onto the street through a revolving door because he couldn’t understand that the door was spinning. There’s also a very clever bit in the song “I Want a Life” (rather than a life in the theater): As the music swells for the song’s chorus, every show-biz tradition tells us that the singers — the theater’s dull-witted accountant (John Cariani) and the producer’s frumpy daughter (Rachel Dratch) — should burst into song and dance. But they just stand there, disgusted and bored by such trite conventions and expectations, as the music swirls around them: funny stuff.

Two gaffes of internal logic, however, are this musical’s undoing — possibly reparable as it heads for Broadway. First, Minsky’s hangs (without implants) on the premise that women’s busts are an antidote to economic busts. This wasn’t an issue during the real police raids of Minsky’s, which occurred frequently between 1917 and 1925, when the economy was comparatively booming. The issue back then, reflected in Friedkin’s film, was a kind of repressive morality for which burlesque provided a social and sexual relief that manifested itself in box-office returns. In the Depression Era new musical, however, despite the eponymous proprietor’s best efforts, the box-office returns continue to sink — Minsky tells us so himself. This belies the show’s foundation that people need such entertainment for reasons bordering on the theological. Yes, the poor pour in when they believe they’re going to see some real, live nipples, but that’s as much an embodiment of the show’s quasi-religious homage to the glories of diversion-as-entertainment as modern Internet porn is the embodiment of spiritual redemption.

This brings us to the larger folly. When the troupe sing about the burlesque house as their home, lighting designer Ken Billington sends down columns of dusty rays, as though through stained-glass windows, against the backdrop of the Winter Garden’s brick walls. The theater is a church, you see. That’s awfully highbrow for an entertainment that stakes its claim on diversion and escape.

In the Ahmanson Theatre lobby, outside Door 7, there’s a framed poster for Fool Moon, a show produced by Center Theatre Group right after the Northridge earthquake rattled Los Angeles to its core. Clowns Bill Irwin and David Shiner performed an evening of physical shtick while dressed something like Abbott and Costello. I remember one of them prancing onto the huge, bare stage, oblivious to the fact that he was attached to an invisible, massive rubber band. We “saw” the elastic because the mime work was so well-crafted. We saw it fling the clown off the stage. He then returned and tried again, from his hands and knees — the Herculean task of crossing the stage while attached to an impediment of cosmic scale — while the audience wept with laughter. The pair unleashed through farce the random precariousness of being alive, after the walls of our city had just crumbled. It was on that night that I understood why Samuel Beckett was so infatuated with the comedy of Buster Keaton. There was nothing portentous about the event, yet it touched harrowing, absurd, religious paradoxes of our finite selves grappling with the infinite. That was lowbrow entertainment as a church service.

I’m not saying that dick jokes and beautiful women covered in bananas or flashing their tits don’t have some metaphysical components, but sometimes a banana is just a banana and not a religious icon. To conflate all escapist diversions into sacred acts, as Minsky’s does, overshoots the point of what church and theater are actually for — which is to strive for a deeper understanding of who we are, and what we’re doing here. Sometimes diverting entertainments surreptitiously hold up a mirror to ourselves, through a song or a punch line. Minsky’s, however, preaches the virtue of escapism as an art, of running from the problems of the times as an act of faith.

Meanwhile, Pippin, a kind of fairy-tale carny show playing next door at the Taper, closes with the view from 800 A.D. that helping peasants and trying to stop wars is naive, and that instead, we should all get real and withdraw to the solace of our own gardens.

As our financial crisis deepens, and we grow inexorably more dependent upon each other for support and possibly for survival, the solipsistic philosophies emerging from our theaters on the Music Center plaza are starting to appear increasingly clueless.

Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn; through March 1. (213) 628-2772.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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