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Charlie LaGreca and Paul Ashley
in Minimum Wage
(Photo © D. Velez)
When I first saw Minimum Wage at the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival, I thought it one of the most refreshingly original musical acts I'd seen in some time. Unfortunately, the show's Off-Broadway transfer lacks the energy and dynamism that made its Fringe run so exciting.

To be sure, several of its songs still delight. The five a cappella singer-actors create enchanting harmonies, lay down their own beats, and provide "instrumentation" by using only their voices. Their theme song remains as catchy as ever; so does the hilarious "Grill," a "boy meets grill" love song in the style of 1980s pop ballads with a little bit of doo-wop thrown in. The rousing anthem "Balls" is another highlight and would serve as a more satisfying ending to the show than its actual finale. Other numbers are of lesser quality; "The Last Cowboy Song" is no doubt the worst, with a refrain ("My underwear keeps riding up my rear") that's neither clever nor funny.

The concept for the show remains roughly the same: The staff of Happy Burger University is conducting a training session for new employees (the audience). With their district manager away, they get to do this in their own inimitable style -- namely, through song and dance. The book of the musical, which was the primary weakness of the Fringe production, has not improved dramatically. It consists of a series of lame jokes and a recurring plot thread about an a cappella music festival that the staff wants to attend. The content of the show is still fairly shallow, avoiding any kind of social critique about low-wage labor that might be inferred from the title.

The company has undergone a few changes since the Fringe, but brothers Jeff and Charlie LaGreca -- who co-wrote the show with composer Sean Altman -- are back as Hux and Orwell, respectively. Paul Ashley, who provides some of the production's finest comic moments, also reprises his role as Bradbury. Elena Meulener has replaced Fringe performer Jennifer Heaney as the company's only burger girl, Piercy, while Brian DePetris is new to the role of Titus, previously played by Harold Lieman. For the most part, the new performers are serviceable but not outstanding, although DePetris does shine as a deadpan Kooky the Clown at the top of the second act.

Minimum Wage also has a new director in David Armstrong, who doubles as choreographer. While the show's dance routines are appropriately cheesy, the direction is slack and the transitions from scene to scene are far from fluid. That sort of unevenness is also evident in the staging of some of the musical numbers: Piercy's solo "Shake Your Booty With Danger," for example, is marred by awkward sequences in which other cast members demonstrate the potential hazards of cooking equipment.

The main problem here is that the show's humor is played too broadly in an obnoxious wink-wink, nudge-nudge fashion. Also, the kind of bubbly joy that the cast members exuded at the Fringe only intermittently surfaces in this new production. Many of the show's jokes fall flat, which only makes the performers try even harder to be funny and, therefore, to succeed even less.

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