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Curmudgeons and the Meaning of Life

Ed Rampell: In this Wabasha, Minnesota-set comedy, senior citizens John Gustafson (Broadway vet Mark Jacoby) and Max Goldman (stage stalwart Gregory North) are feuding next door neighbors who have known each since their boyhoods in this enclave of small town Americana.
Grumpy Old Men

Gregory North, Ken Page, Hal Linden and Mark Jacoby.

GRUMPY OLD MEN: THE MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW

This originality-loving Rampy gets grumpy when mediocre productions are repurposed from one medium to another in order to exploit brand name recognition, maximize profit by re-using the same content, etc. I hate today’s remake/redo/sequel syndrome from one medium to another by unoriginal copycats. Having gotten that out of my system, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the West Coast premiere of Grumpy Old Men: The Musical, which re-works the 1993 star-studded movie comedy (followed up by that inevitable sequel in 1995) which reunited that Odd Couple, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, with Ann-Margret, along with original music performed live by an orchestra, composed by Neil Berg, lyrics by Nick Meglin and book by Dan Remmes for the stage version.

In this Wabasha, Minnesota-set comedy, senior citizens John Gustafson (Broadway vet Mark Jacoby) and Max Goldman (stage stalwart Gregory North) are feuding next door neighbors who have known each since their boyhoods in this enclave of small town Americana.

In this Wabasha, Minnesota-set comedy, senior citizens John Gustafson (Broadway vet Mark Jacoby) and Max Goldman (stage stalwart Gregory North) are feuding next door neighbors who have known each since their boyhoods in this enclave of small town Americana. When va-va-va-voom Ariel (Leslie Stevens, whose credits include Lola in Damn Yankees for San Diego Musical Theatre in 2017) moves to Wabasha, the free-spirited, relatively younger woman re-ignites old passions and rivalries, as John and Max compete for Ariel’s hand (and other portions of her anatomy).

The leads are joined by a pair of notables: Hal Linden as Grandpa Gustafson and Cathy Rigby as Punky Olander. From 1974 to 1982 the Bronx-born Linden starred as the title character in the NYPD TV comedy series Barney Miller. I’d always heard Linden was originally a song and dance man, and I finally got the opportunity to see the 89-year-old strut his stuff and hear him croon. Linden’s song “Life is All About Livin’” in Act I is indeed among Grumpy’s best. Linden won a Tony award for his performance in the 1970 Broadway musical The Rothschilds and co-starred with that odd couple of Matthau and Lemmon in the 1997 movie Out To Sea.

Cathy Rigby

Cathy Rigby

Gymnast Cathy Rigby competed in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics and parlayed her fame to pursue a show biz career. The diminutive performer was Tony-nominated for her 1990-1991 stint as Peter Pan on Broadway. She and husband Tom McCoy are Executive Producers of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Like her co-star Linden, Rigby has some scene stealing numbers and lines in Grumpy, wherein her off-kilter character often seems to be beaming on her own frequency.

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Other standouts in the large cast include Peter Allen Vogt as Harry, who has a recurring bit as an accident prone mailman. In a pleasant if completely unexpected switcheroo, the very female April Nixon (this stage and screen talent co-starred in the 1993 movie musical Sistas: The Musical) plays the part Buck Henry originated in the movie, as the IRS agent Snyder. Nixon sizzles in her sexy, showstopping rendition of “Snyder Comes Along,” which the hoofer reprises in Act II. Ken Page (who performed on the Great White Way in Guys and Dolls and onscreen in Dreamgirls) plays Chuck, a role originated by the late great Ossie Davis in Grumpy’s movie version.

Grumpy’s upbeat music is in the Broadway musical tradition of hits such as, say, The Pajama Game (Linden actually co-starred in a 1970s revival of this perennial favorite about class struggle played mostly for laughs). Indeed, the lyrics and book have the conventions of that 1954 classic, with its music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and book by George Abbott. Like Pajama’s “Steam Heat,” Grumpy’s lyrics, as well as some its dialogue contain sexual innuendoes. Except this being 2019 the words are more explicit, and while there is no graphic nudity (other than a presumably well-endowed naked male statue whose back is turned towards the audience) or depictions of sex acts, some may feel this production is not appropriate for children.

grumpy old men

Fatima El-Bashir, Leslie Stevens, Cathy Rigby, Ken Page and Heather Jane Rolff

Indeed, sexuality and love are important themes in Grumpy - and the lack of same could well account for the characters’ grumpiness. If you hadn’t made love for 19 years you might be a bit on the grouchy side, too. However, friendship and community are also important themes in this small town U.S.A. musical comedy where, when it comes to the matter of race, the residents are color blind. For a crowd pleaser Grumpy is unexpectedly heartwarming, moving and at all times, highly enjoyable. It seems guaranteed to make theatergoers feel much less grumpy than when they first entered the theater and even - dare I say? - glad to be alive when they leave the La Mirada. And what a treat to see Barney Miller live - even without Detectives Wojcieowicz, Yemana, Fish and the rest of the 12th precinct’s squad room!

Grumpy Old Men: The Musical is being performed 7:30 pm on Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8:00 p.m. on Fridays; 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. on Saturdays; and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays through Oct. 13 at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada, CA. For info see: www.lamiradatheatre.com or call: (562)944-9801 or (714)994-6310.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based critic/film historian Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/.) Rampell is moderating the “Enter Stage Left: Theater, Film and TV for a Better World” panel at the Left Coast Forum (see: https://leftcoastforum.org/enter-stage-left/).