No matter your mood upon arrival, expect to exit the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts with the broadest of smiles on your face when you see the feel-good musical that’s been made from the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau movie smash Grumpy Old Men.

John Gustafson (Mark Jacoby) and Max Goldman (Gregory North) have been carrying on a lifelong next-door-neighbor feud ever since the now widowed John married Max’s high school sweetheart, no matter that Max’s late wife had John’s beat by a long shot.

And it’s a feud their fellow Wabasha, Minnesotans have long since gotten used to, small-town folks like Max’s adult son Jacob (Craig McEldowney), smitten since forever with John’s married-but-separated daughter Melanie (Ashley Moniz), John’s still randy nonagenarian father Grandpa Gustafson (Hal Linden), and Chuck Barrels (Ken Page), good-natured owner of the local bait shop, but it’s news to red-headed siren Ariel Truax (Leslie Stevens), freshly arrived to teach at the local college, who soon finds herself enflaming passionate embers in Grumpy Old John and Even Grumpier Old Max.

Book writer Dan Remmes’ smartest move is in taking the local citizenry, mere extras in the movie, and giving them names, occupations, and personalities brought to vibrant life on the La Mirada stage by Joe Abraham and Heather Jane Rolff as as polka champ Stan and his browbeating wife Unis; Allen Everman as town preacher Tim, married to wacky bird lover Unis (Karla J. Franko) and father to rambunctious high schoolers Bo (John Battagiese) and Lo (Neil Starkenberg); Peter Allen Vogt as postman Harry, so accident-prone there’s scarcely a body part with any feeling left in it; and Fatima El-Bashir as pretty young barista Karla.

Equally inspired is Remmes’ decision to turn Chuck’s cousin Punky Olander (Cathy Rigby) into a deliciously dimwitted major player and to give Buck Henry’s IRS man a gender change (April Nixon as curvaceous villainess Sandra Snyder).

Add to this composer Neil Berg and lyricist Nick Meglin’s bouncy score, one that does equal justice to major and supporting players alike, and you’ve got a musical that may be formulaic, but it’s a formula that’s worked before and works again here like a finely-tuned instrument.

Grumpy Old Man The Musical’s West Coast debut reunites director Matt Lenz and choreographer Michele Lynch from its summer-of-’18 Ogunquit Playhouse World Premiere, along with scenic designer Michael Carnahan, costume designer Dustin Cross, and cast members Battagiese, Jacoby, Linden, Rolff, and Stevens.

It’s an all-star team who know exactly what they’re doing, as do musical director Benet Braun, lighting designer Steven Young, sound designer Josh Bessom, projection designer Jonathan Infante, wig/hair/makeup designer EB Bohks, and the dozen cast newbies lighting up the La Mirada Theatre stage.

Eschewing Lemmon-Matthau imitations, Jacoby and North make John and Max entirely their own gloriously grouchy, gorgeously voiced creations, and the luscious, leggy Stevens is such a dazzler, no wonder the two old farts are hooked.

Page remains a force and voice to be reckoned with over forty years since he played The Lion in Broadway’s The Wiz, the legendary Linden still has it in him to charm an audience with Grandpa’s snappy patter and risque retorts, and Rigby’s slow-on-the-uptake Punky never fails to delight.

Nixon’s Sandra could give Dynasty’s Dominique Devereaux a lesson in evildoing, McEldowney and Moniz are as appealing as two made-for-each-other 30somethings can be, and Vogt mines laugh after laugh out of mailman Harry’s multiple ills, with triple-threat ensemble players Abraham, Battagliese, El-Bashir, Everman, Franko, Rolff, and Starkenberg making their own distinct impressions as well.

Wabasha may be freezing cold throughout Grumpy Old Men’s Christmas-season time frame, but it looks welcoming as all get-out on the La Mirada Theatre stage thanks to the production’s crackerjack East Coast/West Coast design team.

Anthony C. Daniel is associate director. Chris Conrad is technical director. John W. Calder, III is production stage manager and Lisa Palmire is assistant stage manager. Abraham is dance captain. Casting is by Lindsay Brooks.

A crowd-pleaser in the classic Bye Bye Birdie/Damn Yankees/Pajama Game mode but with enough contemporary sensibility to satisfy 21st-century audiences (and not just those of John and Max’s advanced years), Grumpy Old Men The Musical has exactly what it takes to become a regional theater favorite. Its West Coast Premiere is only step two of the beginning.

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McCoy Rigby Entertainment at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.

–Steven Stanley
September 21, 2019
Photos: Jason Niedle

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