If there were justice in the world, “Grumpy Old Men: The Musical” would be a jaunty new hit across the land.
Circa '21 is just the second theater in the nation to stage the wonderfully humorous, heartfelt, homey production, based on the popular 1993 movie starring Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Ann-Margret and Burgess Meredith. With a clever, tuneful score by Neil Berg (music) and Nick Meglin (lyrics), the musical premiered last year at Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine.
Set in the small, tight-knit town of Wabasha, Minn., “Grumpy Old Men” tells of two sprightly, septuagenarian neighbors, Max and John, who have been feuding more than 50 years. But when the beautiful and charming Ariel moves in across the street, the bickering boys' rivalry is raised to new heights as their wicked barbs descend to subterranean lows. (“Putz!” “Moron!” and “You couldn't catch a fish if I threw it at you” are typical of the scathing, witty banter.)
Appropriate that the film featured cinema's original “Odd Couple” (1968's Lemmon and Matthau), this “Grumpy Old” adaptation certainly features some odd-ball characters. Like most people, the friendly folks in this burg have quirks — it also wouldn't be theater without them.
It seems fitting that veteran Circa director Curt Wollan oversees the fun festivities, since he's led the popular series of “Church Basement Ladies” musicals at the dinner theater over the past decade. Also set in a small Minnesota town, Wollan commissioned the first CBL show after learning about the book "Growing Up Lutheran" by Janet Martin and Suzann Nelson.
At Circa, longtime favorite Tom Walljasper has played the pastor in the CBL musicals, and he's the exceedingly crotchety Max in “Grumpy Old Men.” Like CBL, the new show wears a big heart on its down-filled sleeve, reflects old-fashioned values, family themes, unfurls a lot of corny jokes (though here a good deal of sex-related humor, unlike CBL) and through some dramatic obstacles, returns us to a warm, comforting conclusion.
Judging by the packed audience Saturday night, “Grumpy Old Men” has a similarly strong fan base as CBL, likely due to the enduring title and well-worn, relatable story. And playing to Circa's older demographic can't hurt either, though there are characters here that appeal to a wide range of ages.
One of the many amusing, entertaining numbers is a bouncy tune about death, “Way To Go,” near the start. Sung by Walljasper, Luther Chakurian as his nemesis John, Bob Marcus as Grandpa and John Payonk as Chuck, it notes various ways to shuffle off this mortal coil. You're a “lucky stiff” if you don't linger. (It's a natural progression after seeing “Mid-Life: The Musical” and “Menopause: The Musical” at Circa; is “Nursing Home: The Musical” next?)
Into this chilly, wintry wonderland glides Ariel (on a snowmobile, no less), a fiery redhead played with passion and compassion by Miranda Jane — who co-starred in the recent “Diamonds & Divas” with Walljasper, Payonk, and Tristan Tapscott — who solidly embodies Max's earnest son, Jacob.
She literally brings a “Heat Wave” to town, singing the praises of the place and winning everyone over, including the audience.
John is the more likable of the main old men — a retired high-school history teacher — (Max is a retired TV repairman who loves fishing) and the Houston-based Chakurian imbues him with the requisite cultured gravitas and good nature (when he's not around Max). We learn John loves playing piano (“When No One's Around” is a lovely bit of nostalgia) and cooking, and he shares a stronger bond with Ariel.
Under the blizzard of one-liners, “Grumpy Old Men” is a poignant story about choices, love, loss, friendship, sacrifice and forgiveness. It teaches us to not take the people in our lives for granted.
As the horndog 94-year-old Grandpa (who apparently is up on his Viagra prescription) sings, “Life Is All About Livin'.”
In the story, John was married to May, Max’s high-school sweetheart, until she passed away, and Max has for decades held a grudge that John “stole” her from him. Max appeared to have a happy marriage, and all three main characters have survived their spouses.
Tapscott and Erin Churchill, as John's daughter Melanie, sweetly share their hopes and dreams in “Parents & Paradise” — as she longs for a condo on the beach in L.A., and he wants to move to New York City. These two Circa vets also share strong chemistry and are level-headed flavors in this tasty bowl of mixed nuts.
A key plot point resolves around the IRS agent, Sandra Snyder (an excellent, effusive Rachelle Walljasper), who relentlessly hounds John for failure to pay years of back taxes. Her “Snyder Comes Along,” in a playful tango style, features an ensemble also in hats, dark glasses and briefcases with some neat choreography and slow-moving circular motion.
Payonk impresses with his imposing, operatic voice in the triumphant “An Angel.” In the second act, Chakurian is affecting in “An Angel” reprise, where he pays heartbreaking tribute to his late wife in an ethereal voice.
After a traumatic event, Walljasper reveals Max's humanity in the similarly, deeply touching “Family Or Friend” near the show's close.
A uniformly strong, talented cast fills this “Grumpy Old Men,” which is cute and irresistible. Here's hoping it enjoys a deservedly long life.