Conrad John Schuck (front left) and John Rubinstein (front right) in Grumpy Old Men: The Musical (Leif Norman)
Let's state the obvious first: Grumpy Old Men ain't high art. But the 1993 movie became an audience favourite - and a box office hit - thanks to the chemistry of its leads, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. So I set my bar pretty low going into the last of three preview performances of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's world premiere of Grumpy Old Men: The Musical. I hoped for some nice tunes, a few gentle laughs, and a couple of good curmudgeonly performances.
I should've set my bar a bit lower.
Plotwise, Dan Remmes' adaptation delivers pretty much what the film did. John Gustafson (played here by Tony Award winner John Rubinstein) and Max Goldman (Conrad John Schuck, who made his film debut in MASH), the two titular cranks, maintain a bittersweet rivalry - started over a woman - in their sleepy hometown of Wabasha, Minnesota. Their rivalry heats up with the arrival of another woman both men have eyes for - the free-spirited Ariel Truax (Susan Anton, who starred in the 1979 film Goldengirl). John's life is further disrupted by the realization that he owes the IRS a staggering amount in back taxes.
It's a pretty basic romantic comedy plot, so a lot rests on the details. Some things click: both Rubinstein and Schuck are suitably - and likably - grumpy, and make the most of their roles. They won't erase anyone's memory of Lemmon and Matthau, but they don't set out to copy those performances, either, which is laudable. There are some standouts in the supporting cast, including Winnipeg's Frank Adamson as John's randy father (he gets the best lines of the show, including the only one that made me laugh out loud - and which I don't think I can print here), and DeAnn deGruijter, who chews the heck out of the scenery as the Cruella De Vil-ish IRS agent Snyder.
Neil Berg's music isn't exactly inspired, but includes lots of peppy, pleasant tunes. And Winnipeg-born designer Douglas Paraschuk nearly steals the show with his spectacularly realistic sets, so lifelike you can nearly feel the crisp chill in the air. There's lots of visual bang on those sets, from ice fishing to a hockey game to a snowmobile that cruises across the stage.
So what made me so grumpy about this musical? In spite of all it's got going for it, on balance, it's got all the personality of a snowman. Remmes' script and the lyrics (by former MAD Magazine editor Nick Meglin) are cute and inoffensive, but short on good belly laughs. The songs are fine, but not great enough to leave the audience eagerly anticipating the next musical number. John MacInnis' choreography doesn't deliver any stand-out dance pieces, and Bill Castellino's direction offers a production that simply lacks the energy a comedy like this needs. And as the romantic interest, Anton hasn't got much to work with in Remmes' script (which makes her seem more insufferable than fascinating), but she fails to convey any of the charm necessary to make us believe two men would fight over her (and her two big musical numbers are delivered with a less-than-endearing earnestness).
The producers backing Grumpy Old Men: The Musical are hoping it'll be a Broadway hit.
Unfortunately, I'd say it hasn't got a snowball's chance.
Joff Schmidt, CBC Theatre Reviewer
Photo in text: Conrad John Schuck and John Rubinstein in Grumpy Old Men: The Musical (Leif Norman)