Michael L. Quintos, Associate Los Angeles Critic
Of all the movies that have come out in the last century, the last film I would ever imagine desperately needing a stage musical adaptation is "GRUMPY OLD MEN", the Mark Steven Johnson-scripted Warner Brothers sleeper hit released in 1993. Designed, perhaps, primarily as another comedy vehicle to reunite frequent incredible co-stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau to revive their usual Odd Couple-ish banter, the film was a minor hit that charmed enough audiences to even prompt a big screen sequel two years later, and a short-lived TV series after that.
Fast forward to 2019 and McCoy Rigby Entertainment is currently presenting the musical adaptation's first West Coast premiere production at their home base at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, which continues performances through October 13, 2019.
Directed admirably by Matt Lenz and featuring a book by Dan Remmes, music by Neil Berg, and Lyrics by Nick Meglin, the theatrical iteration retains much of the core storyline depicted in the original movie, but amps up attention for periphery characters that live in its setting of frozen town Wabasha, Minnesota—which this musical adaptation has turned into a facsimile of Stars Hollow, the quirky town featured in the TV series Gilmore Girls.
Curiously, however, the show—while dialing up the eccentric nature of its surroundings and citizens—somehow dilutes the more sinister, cheeky humor that Lemmon and Matthau so brilliantly toyed with in the film, rendering this adaptation to be both cautiously charming but temperately ordinary at the same time. Yes the wickedly sharp-tongued roasting back and forth can get oh-so-wildly PG-13 at times, but for the most part, "GRUMPY OLD MEN" stays comfortably in the "get off my lawn" level of cattiness.
Amusing and generally jovial, the show is mostly an innocuous bit of mild entertainment that will certainly entertain its target audiences (I.e., those who can actually remember the movie), but won't likely bowl over anyone with deeper thoughts or even gut-busting laughter that they'll reminisce over fondly long after they've left the lobby. Rather, "GRUMPY OLD MEN" is simply a predictable mixture of dad jokes, bawdy double- (and triple-) entendres, cute but mostly serviceable songs, and lots of (sometimes) awkwardly forced quirky humor, that many will find amusing in the moment. Some sharp witty lines, plenty of major shade-throwing, and some hilariously random broadly comedic moments do make the cut and are welcomed with genuine laughs that keep the show from sinking into the melting ice completely.
But what really elevates the La Mirada production from barreling forward as just another average musical comedy is its exceptional, charm-filled cast, who, frankly, make the material loads better than it is.
As the feuding, cantankerous next-door neighbors stubbornly hanging on to their 50-year-old grudge against each other, Mark Jacoby and Gregory North are both superb as aging frenemies John Gustafson and Max Goldman, respectively. In between ice fishing sessions and trips to the local watering hole, the pair trade insults like experienced comedy roasters, goading each other with sometimes vicious verbal attacks that range from mild jabs to deeply personal punches. The two actors have deeply imbedded themselves to the characters, and their commitment shows.
Their sophomoric feud—borne out of a still not quite verified accusation of lady-stealing—is further stoked by the arrival of the beautiful new town resident Ariel, an artsy cougar that can effortlessly give off vibes of both metropolitan sophistication and one-of-the-boys casualness, bathed in a sexiness that neither of the two men can resist. She is played here by the radiant Leslie Stevens (the role played by Ann-Margret in the film) and effectively proves right away why both John and Max are instantly smitten and dumbfounded. As expected the two neighboring widowers try to best each other on who would eventually win the heart (or another, um, organ) of this exciting "newcomer."
Despite not being the primary focus of the narrative at hand, the musical's most fascinating characters turn out to be the secondary characters that have been purposefully enhanced in the stage iteration. Broadway vet Ken Page is instantly likable as the town's teddy bear-ish general store proprietor Chuck Barrels who is, unsurprisingly, a good friend to both feuding men (on a personal note, it's always a thrill for me to hear Mr. Page sing, particularly since I associate him most as being the voice of Oogie Boogie in Disney's cult classic The Nightmare Before Christmas).
Cathy Rigby—the Rigby in McCoy Rigby Entertainment, FYI—is clearly having lots of cheeky fun with her turn as Chuck's nutty cousin Punky, a pint-sized oddball dressed like a pre-teen that basically walks into the room, deliver her kooky one-liners for laughs, then leaves to thunderous applause. Frankly, I'm obsessed.
Peter Allen Vogt's accident-prone mail carrier Harry earns chuckles for his bumbling but adorkable doof. And finally, veteran actor Hal Linden makes brief appearances as John's still-spry (and cheeky) 94-year-old Pop. Other players include Craig McEldowney as Max's son Jacob who still nurses a crush on next door neighbor John's daughter Melanie, played by Ashley Moniz. McEldowney and Moniz don't have enough stage time to merit much movement in their possible courtship, but seeds are planted when Jacob debates his big move to New York while Melanie is dealing with the breakup of her marriage. Thrown into the mix is April Nixon who convincingly plays a visiting IRS agent on the hunt for John—who we soon learn owes quite a bit to Uncle Sam that could potentially bankrupt him out his home.
For its technical aspects, La Mirada's West Coast premiere of "GRUMPY OLD MEN" looks and sounds like an open-ended Broadway-caliber stage production, utilizing an impressive snowy-locale set designed by Michael Carnahan complimented well by Steven Young's caffeinated lighting design and Jonathan Infante's projections. Dustin Cross' contemporary winter-weather costumes keep the show's time setting ambiguous while Eb Bohk's hair and makeup work finishes off the details. Michele Lynch's lively choreography is brought to life by the cast's young high-energy ensemble. Sound-wise, Benet Braun's musical direction keeps the pit orchestra sounding great, producing poppy tunes that service the narrative action.
Overall, "GRUMPY OLD MEN" presents itself as a curiosity of a musical—a show whose disparate elements look and feel top-notch, but its tethered storyline and its characters earn inconsistent levels and strengths of its audience's investment. Is it because at its core, the show is, well, about a pair of moody, stubborn men of a certain age that trade little else but insults to pass the time? At their age, with time slipping away with each passing day, you would think burying the hatchet would dawn on them sooner (though, to be fair, there wouldn't be a show at all if they had come to that conclusion about the preciousness of life in the first three minutes).
While it can certainly be amusing to witness grown-ass men go from horny—to mischievous—then cantankerous in 3.2 seconds, it's not as flattering a portrait for them as they might think it is. Perhaps this is why when John's financial troubles come to light, his troubles don't automatically gain our sympathies, but as others rally around him, we start to care a bit more. With a modicum of humor and musicality to offer its audience armed with minimized expectations, "GRUMPY OLD MEN" is, still, a respectable enough attempt at recreating the joy and sass of the original, as "tame" as it ended up becoming.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos by Jason Niedle courtesy of La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.
McCoy Rigby Entertainment and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts presents "GRUMPY OLD MEN: THE MUSICAL"
Adapted from the Warner Bros. motion picture written by Mark Steven Johnson. Featuring Book by Dan Remmes, Music by Neil Berg, and Lyrics by Nick Meglin. Musical Direction by Benet Braun. Choreographed by Michele Lynch. Directed by Matt Lenz.
The cast of "GRUMPY OLD MEN: THE MUSICAL" features Mark Jacoby as “John Gustafson,” Gregory North as “Max Goldman,” Leslie Stevens as “Ariel Truax,” Craig McEldowney as “Jacob Goldman,” April Nixon as “Sandra Snyder” and Ashley Moniz as “Melanie Norton.” The Ensemble will feature (in alphabetical order): Joe Abraham, John Battagliese, Fatima El-Bashir, Allen Everman, Karla Franko, Heather Jane Rolff, Neil Starkenberg and Paul C. Vogt.
"GRUMPY OLD MEN" features Scenic Design by Michael Carnahan; Lighting Design by Steven Young; Sound Design by Josh Bessom; Projection Design by Jonathan Infante; Costume Design by Jonathan Infante; Hair/Wig/Makeup Design by EB Bohks. The Casting Director is Lindsay Brooks and the Production Stage Manager is John W. Calder III.
Performances of "GRUMPY OLD MEN: THE MUSICAL" at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts continue through Sunday, October 13, 2019. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.