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Minneapolis Scene
by Steven LaVigne
December 2006
Maybe it’s the unseasonable weather in the upper Midwest, but local theaters made some odd choices for their holiday offerings this year. Oh, sure, we had our share of Dickens (“3 Christmas Carols”), Jean Shepard, Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” and “The Grinch” but there were also productions of “The Miser,” “Tartuffe,” “The Rivals.” One theater presented “The Mousetrap!” That’s probably not so odd, because it is, after all, a winter’s tale.

“The Full Monty”

The tendency of turning movies into stage musicals has brought few works that surpass the original material, but I think that is the case “The Full Monty.” Based on a popular British comedy, gay playwright Terrence McNally moves the plot to Buffalo, where a group of unemployed steel workers, who consider themselves “scrap,” create a male strip group revealing everything, or, as they say, the full monty.

The plot involves Jerry, who is about to lose time with his son, due to lack of child support; his best friend, the overweight Dave, their former boss, Harold, (who is in denial about his unemployment), and Malcolm, who partners with Ethan shortly before the death of his mother.

Composer David Yazback has created genuine theater songs which establish an emotional core while advancing the plot. As staged by BCT’s Artistic Director, John Command, Monty is a pleasant, if not completely successful production. There are standout performances from Thomas Rupp as Dave, Tracie Hodgson as his wife, and Bonnie Erickson as Harold’s clueless wife. Command has created some spectacular moments, including “Gotta Love That Man,” the first act finale, and the final sequence (which replicates the movie). He has made some mistakes, though. Command frequently gives the libretto short shrift, and The Full Monty is no exception. Were it not for Robin McIntyre’s flowing corrugated steel set, which distracts from these shortcomings, the material wouldn’t flow especially well. Command has made a secondary character, Jeanette, the accompanist into a principal and Denise Tabet delivers a showstopper with “Jeanette’s Showbiz Number.” While this is enjoyable, it’s wrong for the show.

In the leading role, Mark Sweeney tries hard, but he hasn’t been pushed hard enough to carry the show. Knowing his audience of blue hairs, he stops short of carrying the scene where Malcolm and Ethan accept their attraction for one another by cutting it just short of the kiss. Even with this censorship, “The Full Monty” is an entertaining and enjoyable show.

“Diva Dish”

There’s a moment toward the conclusion of “Diva Dish” which impacts the audience in an odd, but effective manner. Luke Yankee recreates his final moments with his mother, actress Eileen Heckart. As the sequence ends, the afghan he has draped over a leather armchair falls to the ground. It’s as if Heckart’s spirit has left the theater.

Earlier on this Website, I posted a review of “Just Outside the Spotlight,” Luke Yankee’s loving biography of his mother, actress Eileen Heckart. This solo production is every bit as marvelous. Using a video monitor, Yankee moves back and forth through his childhood, telling stories about growing up in Connecticut, where he learned to make martinis from Ethel Merman, learned acting techniques from Paul Newman, studied acting with Eva Le Gallienne, and was good friends with Vivian Vance.

Heckart was never a big star, and she preferred to stay just outside the spotlight. She remained a working actress throughout her career. While she focused on the stage, her performances in films such as “The Bad Seed” and “Butterflies are Free” (for which she won an Oscar) are especially memorable. In Hollywood, his older brothers’ baby-sitter during the filming of “Bus Stop,” was Marilyn Monroe, and his father was excited when he met Mae West at a party following the Oscar ceremony.

“Diva Dish” is a lovely memorial. Yankee (who, by the way, slightly resembles Tony Dow from “Leave It to Beaver”) continues to tour in the show.

“P.S. Your Cat is Dead”

James Kirkwood was an actor and writer, who created the libretto for the long-running Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, “A Chorus Line.” Kirkwood was also a novelist. “P.S. Your Cat is Dead” had two New York productions, and a few years ago, Steve Guttenberg starred in a so-so film version. Starting Gate Productions presented this as the holiday offering during their Directors’ Choice season.

Jimmy Zoole is an actor who learns on New Year’s Eve that his girlfriend left him for a trendier prospect, he’s been fired from his two jobs, his cramped studio apartment has been burglarized twice, and his beloved cat has died. To top everything off, the thief has returned, and he’s hiding in the closet.

Kirkwood’s play is a screwball comedy, and it could be rip-snorting entertainment. Jimmy knocks the thief out, and ties him to the island kitchen cabinet. Planning to torture him, they wind up becoming friends, and will presumably become lovers. They do in the novel version.

Under Richard Jackson’s direction, the play is rather dreary, and calls into question the validity of the script. Written in the 1970s, it doesn’t survive updating, and Starting Gate hasn’t successfully recreated the period. Tamatha Miller’s design fills the stage with split levels more appropriate to “Barefoot in the Park,” and decorated with art more appropriate to “Same Time, Next Year.”

The acting is, overall, appalling, with only Jairus Abts as Vito, the gay Brooklyn Italian thief, delivering anything resembling a realistic performance. Clarence Wethern tries to breathe energy into Jimmy, but it’s inconsistent, and he never makes Jimmy anything but an unlikable jerk. Julie Ann Nevill is a confident Kate, but for naught, because this is really a two-character play and all of the remaining roles are thankless.

“P.S. Your Cat is Dead” has largely been forgotten over the past two decades, and if Starting Gate’s production is any indication, it’s obvious why.

“White Christmas”

Ever since I was a little gay boy in Wisconsin, my favorite Christmas movie has been White Christmas, because I always enjoyed Danny Kaye dancing with Vera Ellen and Bing Crosby’s breezy performance, but especially for Rosemary Clooney’s enchanting performance. Has anyone ever looked better dressed by Edith Head than Clooney’s black satin gown for “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me?"”

With a script by David Ives and Paul Blake, “White Christmas” isn’t so much a movie onstage, but as “Crazy for You” re-imagined Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy,” this re-imagines Irving Berlin’s work and creates a marvelous, entertaining holiday musical. The plot is essentially the same, with producer-performers Bob Wallace (Stephen Bogardus) and Phil Davis (Jeff Denman) joining forces with the Haines Sisters (Kerry O’Malley as Betty and Kristen Beth Williams as Judy) to help their former commanding officer, General Waverly (David Ogden Stiers) fill his Vermont hotel on Christmas Eve.

Ives and Blake have restructured the material to make it work, eliminating some sequences (“The Minstrel Show” and “Choreography” are gone) adding other Berlin Songs (“Let Yourself Go,” “Love and the Weather,” “How Deep is the Ocean?,” and “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy”) and filling out characters. Busybody Martha, played on film by Mary Wickes, is now a retired performer, and she gets a place in the show. The General’s granddaughter, an adult in the movie, is a child here.

Set in 1954, and directed by Walter Bobbie, with choreography by Randy Skinner, “White Christmas” resembles other musicals of the period, as it gracefully moves through its enjoyable story and magnificent songs. Bobbie, (whose work includes the Broadway revivals of “Chicago” and “Sweet Charity”) creates an outstanding show that pulls at the heartstrings and the tear ducts.

Planned to play major cities every holiday season for years to come, it’s not to be missed!

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