Grumpy Old Men

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

Both critics and Broadway musical fans are often quick to attack the latest musical based on a film. They decry the lack of creativity and yearn for the Golden Age of musicals when creativity reigned supreme. But the reality is that, while there are many original musicals, there are arguably more inspired by source material including films. And for every musical disappointment like Hazel Flagg (based on the film “Nothing Sacred”) or Look to the Lillies (based on the film “Lilies of the Field”), there is a musical gem  like The King and I (Based on the film “Anna and the King of Siam”) or She Loves Me (Based on the film “The Shop Around the Corner”).

The major difference today is that musicals proudly trumpet their connection to the film, rather than softening their relationship by creating a new title for the musical version. This intentional use of the film’s name for a musical has led to the oft-used subtitle, “the musical” becoming a universal punchline. The only real question for a musical based on a film is whether or not it works on its own merits.

In a year that has seen musical versions of Pretty Woman and Tootsie on Broadway, McCoy Rigby Entertainment is presenting the West Coast premiere of Grumpy Old Men. I never saw the film, but apparently the skeleton of the story remains the same. John Gustafson (Mark Jacoby) and Max Goldman (Gregory North) are longtime neighbors and enemies living in frigid Wabasha, Minnesota. They initially fell out over a girl, and the sudden appearance of Ariel Truax (Leslie Stevens) in the town brings their simmering rivalry to a boil.

A secondary plot concerns Max’s son, Jacob (Craig McEldowney), and John’s daughter, Melanie (Ashley Moniz), who appear to be mildly taken with each other, though, in the way of many onscreen romances, neither of them cares enough to speak up and let the other know. April Nixon’s Sandra Snyder provides the nominal villain of the piece as a snappily dressed IRS agent.

The three above-the-title names belong to supporting characters in the show. Hal Linden plays Grandpa Gustafson, John’s not-so-grumpy father, Ken Page plays Chuck Barrells, the ebullient owner of a general store in the town, and Cathy Rigby plays Punky Olander, a decidedly odd relative of Chuck’s.

Dan Remmes’ book piles on the small-town clichés and the implausible plot contrivances which are probably inherited from the screenplay. Though I doubt the film contained the endless stream of dick jokes and limp Viagra wisecracks. Neil Berg’s score is almost aggressively tuneful, though none of the songs register strongly enough to be hummed on your way out of the auditorium. Nick Meglin’s lyrics are serviceable and comprehensible.

Matt Lenz’s energetic direction and Michele Lynch’s winter-appropriate choreography almost succeed in cloaking the fact that nothing much happens until the second act. But the fact is that no one on the creative team has made a convincing case that Grumpy Old Men should be musicalized. That makes this one of those musicals based on a film that musical fans and grumpy old critics like me complain about.

One cannot complain about the terrific cast, all of whom are talented, committed, and performing this show as if they are in the next Hamilton rather than the latest Ankles Away. Jacoby does nicely with John’s quiet moments, and it’s always a pleasure to hear him sing. North blusters appropriately, uses his big voice to great advantage in his second act number, and even manages to get laughs with a furniture struggle that was stale when I saw it on “Love American Style.” Stevens does her best to inject her role with a bit of reality. But the role resolutely rejects her every attempt.

McEldowney and Moniz bring some polish to their not-very-starcrossed lovers who inexplicably decide to throw away their dreams of escaping the small town so that they can stay together in Wabasha. Linden remains a canny charmer, and, if the voice no longer rings like Mayer Rothschild, it’s enough to hear the old pro at work. Rigby manages plenty of laughs with Punky’s eccentric humor and reveals a talent for yodeling. Page maintains his dignity by having a character who doesn’t crack wise, sings the best number in the first act, and then expires.

Despite all the talent and professionalism behind the scenes and on stage, Grumpy Old Men is a musical that has yet to know why it’s singing.

La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts    September 21 – October 13, 2019