Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Johnny Skeeky; or, The Remedy for Everything
Theater Latté Da
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule


(standing) Erin Capello, James Ramlet,
Elizabeth Hawkinson, Jay Albright, Benjamin Dutcher;
(in bed) Steven Epp

Photo by Dan Norman
Johnny Skeeky; or The Remedy for Everything, now afloat at Theater Latté Da, is gorgeous to look at, beautifully sung, and pitched to a rising crescendo of comedic delight. It is a shiny bauble, light as gossamer, but with the capacity to soothe a spirit made weary by the weight of topical concerns. In other words, check your cares at the door, come to have a good time, and you won't be disappointed.

Johnny Skeeky is pronounced the same but spelled differently than Gianni Schicchi, a one-act opera composed by Giacomo Puccini with a libretto by Giovacchino Forzano, freely adapted and directed by Bradley Greenwald and Steven Epp, whose partnership in the theatre goes back to their days in the late, great Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Epp and Greenwald also have leading roles in the show, but it is far from a mere showcase for their shining talents.

Puccini wrote Gianni Schicchi toward the end of his career, as the third in a triptych of one-act operas that premiered in 1918. The first of the three was in the horrific grand-guignol vein, the second a romantic tragedy, and the third, Gianni Schicchi, a ribald farce. It must have made for a disjointed evening. Only the third act was greeted with the acclaim Puccini was accustomed to after La bohème, Madame Butterfly, and Tosca. After considerable public demand, Puccini gave consent for Gianni Schicchi to be staged apart from the other two. Theater Latté Da's Johnny Skeeky runs about 100 minutes without intermission, making for a substantial evening of effervescence that wisely ends before the fizz flattens.

Epp and Greenwald follow the basic premise and broad narrative outline of the Puccini/Forzano work. They set the tale in current times, and transport the story from Italy to a luxurious yacht harbored in Miami, which allows for an awfully swell scenic concept (the exquisite design is by Benjamin Olson). At the center of Johnny Skeeky is a fabulously wealthy man named Bobo Donaudy (Epp), who is in the throes of death. Bobo is surrounded by his family, who feign their love and rehearse their grief, while actually jockeying for position to receive a greater share of Bobo's estate. Vipers, in other words.

The two exceptions are a pair of ardent lovers, Ricky (Felix Aguilar Tomlinson) and Laurie (Anna Hashizume), who are determined to marry for love. Ricky is Bobo's grandson as well as a doctor, though family members cast scorn upon him for not being a "real" doctor, but one who works at a clinic–in other words, not in line to become rich. Laurie is a hospice nurse assigned to care for Bobo in his final days, and–we eventually learn–is the granddaughter of Johnny Skeeky (Greenwald). In Puccini's original, she is Lauretta, the daughter of Gianni Schicchi–in case you are keeping notes.

Epp and Greenwald have devised to make Bobo and Johnny old and dear friends who have not seen one another since a youthful boating incident in which Bobo thought Johnny had drowned. Once he learns the truth, Bobo yearns to reconnect with his old friend, even as he lies dying. The rest of the family–decked out like Kardashians (with kudos to Sonya Berlovitz for costume design and Emma Gustafson for wig, hair, and makeup design)–connives to increase their respective shares of Bobo's fortune, falsely claiming that any inheritance will be directed to their various "causes." When they find out that Bobo's will does not treat them as they had hoped, Johnny Skeeky helps them devise a scheme to alter Bobo's will. This aspect of the plot in Puccini's original work was inspired by a section of Dante's Inferno, but you don't need to know a thing about Dante to enjoy the decadence and villainy, played for bountiful laughs.

In fact, all of this engenders a tremendous amount of laughter, spurred by physical comedy, witty repartee, and delightfully droll performances by all on hand. Both as writers and directors, Epp and Greenwald have mined every opportunity for humor buried within this far fetched plot, with staging that sweeps us along, as if on a hydrofoil peering through the panoramic windows of Bobo's yacht while we circle around it. In addition to the designers whose work I have already praised, Kevin Springer's sound design and Karin Olson's lighting design bring luster to the production.

What about the music? Gianni Schicchi is, after all, an opera, and Theater Latté Da is famed for its productions of musical theatre. Yes, the original Puccini score is used, with new lyrics brimming with Epp and Greenwald's acerbic wit, performed with verve by an eight-member orchestra led by music director Sonja Thompson. The score, though, is used in fits and start, with some fairly lengthy sung passages, but also some snippets of song between long (for an opera) stretches of spoken dialogue. This works out swimmingly as a means of presenting the story in its contemporary visage, but may disappoint anyone hoping to hear the Puccini score without interruption.

One thing that does not disappoint is the performance of the beloved aria, "O mio babbino caro (O, my dear papa)" beautifully sung by Anna Hashizume, as Laurie. It is an impassioned plea to her father, Johnny Skeeky, to give his blessing to her marriage to Ricky. If the title does not ring a bell, you may know it from its use as a lush romantic theme in the Ivory-Merchant film A Room with a View. On opening night, it was the only musical moment that garnered an individual ovation.

Hashizume is just one of several cast members who pivot between the stages of opera and musical theatre, bringing their sizable talents in both arenas to this production. Among them, Felix Aguilar Tomlinson, as Ricky, makes a particularly striking impression. Others include James Ramlet, Benjamin Dutcher, Norah Long, Elizabeth Hawkinson and Erin Capello. Jay Albright, not known as a singer of opera, but as an always dependable comic actor, is delicious as Dennis, whom everyone believes to be a relative without knowing how he connects to the family tree.

With everyone else in the cast doing splendid work, the spotlight still shines on Epp, as Bobo, and Greenwald, as Johnny Skeeky. Epp is not much of a singer, but his uninhibited habitation of the character and perfect comic timing are a show all in themselves. Greenwald, on the other hand, has a glorious baritone (one might wish he had more occasion to use it here), but also a fabulous comedic delivery pitch perfect for the delightful invention that is Johnny Skeeky. When the two find themselves on stage at the same time, the chemistry between them creates a synergistic delight, the whole of their long-lived on-stage comradery being greater than the sum of its parts.

A word about the full title. Johnny Skeeky; or, The Remedy for Everything. One might construe that the show is about problem-solving. It is built around Bobo's problem, not Johnny's. Yet, Johnny Skeeky's appearance, well into the course of the show, enables a resolution to Bobo's dilemma that would be otherwise inconceivable. The tag line, "The Remedy for Everything," is mentioned a few times throughout the show. What is the remedy for all the woes that face humanity? Listen, and you'll hear the answer proffered by these two cantankerous, endearing, and hilarious old men. With all the troubles in our world, it couldn't hurt to have a remedy on hand. And you will have a delightfully entertaining time along the way.

Johnny Skeeky; or, The Remedy for Everything runs through July 7, 2024, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. This staging is a co-production with Geva Theatre Center. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to theaterlatteda.com.

Libretto: Bradley Greenwald and Steven Epp; Music: Giacomo Puccini; Directors: Steven Epp and Bradley Greenwald; Orchestrations: Robert Elhai; Music Director: Sonja Thompson; Scenic Design: Benjamin Olsen; Costume Design: Sonya Berlovitz; Lighting Designer: Karin Olson; Sound Designer: Kevin Springer; Wigs, Hair and Makeup Design: Emma Gustafson; Props Design: Amy Redd; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld; Associate Technical Director: Eric Charlton; Production Stage Manager: Shelby Reddig; Stage Manager: Joelle Coutu; Assistant Stage Managers: Kyla Finn and Austin Schoenfelder.

Cast: Jay Albright (Dennis), Erin Capello (Buffy), Benjamin Dutcher (Gary), Steven Epp (Bobo), Bradley Greenwald (Johnny), Anna Hashizume (Laurie), Elizabeth Hawkinson (Fresca), Norah Long (Verna), James Ramlet (Waldo), Felix Agullar Tomlinson (Ricky).