Here's the background: Nine years ago, three out-of-work pals -- a singer, a mime and a magician -- got together in Minneapolis and assembled an evening's entertainment to showcase their assorted eclectic talents. Nearly a decade later, that modest pastiche has been staged in London, Dublin, Toronto and throughout America. Triple Espresso has evolved from a showcase to an annuity to a franchise to a cottage industry. Today it is primed to take its place alongside the likes of Forever Plaid and Shear Madness as one of those inexplicable theater happenings that brings undemanding theatergoers no end of happiness.
The conceit here (to call it a plot would be to give it too much credit) concerns the reluctant reunion of a 1970s musical trio that split up after a disastrous appearance on The Mike Douglas Show. Flashbacks chronicle the guys' first meeting (they were contestants on The Dating Game) and their ensuing journey to humiliation. There's ample opportunity for all three to make monkeys of themselves along the way, though only one does so literally (in a spoof of Planet of the Apes). There's lots of spoofing here, including a re-enactment of Chariots of Fire as performed by the Three Stooges and a rendition of Paul Anka's "Having My Baby" sung in Swahili. There's also a strikingly amusing set piece involving hand puppets.
Despite the fact that the original show was designed to highlight the specific strengths of its three creators, all three fictional characters seem to be derivative of others. Hugh Butternut (J.C. Cutler), who is celebrating his 25th anniversary as a burned-out pianist at the Triple Espresso nightclub, is an extreme version of Nick, the lounge crooner created by Bill Murray on Saturday Night Live. Folk singer Bobby Bean (John Bush) seems to be a cross between malaprop comic Norm Crosby and Peter, Paul and Mary's Peter Yarrow, especially when he's leading the audience in a marathon sing-along.
Then there is Buzz Maxwell (Patrick Albanese), the failed magician who conjures memories of The Amazing Mr. Ballantine, the 1950s comic who so brilliantly made an art of bad magic. (Personal note: I'm a sucker for good bad-magic acts, and Albanese is very good indeed. When, in the middle of a particularly lame routine, he looks at the audience and earnestly requests, "Everybody close your eyes for a second," I'm reduced to helplessness.) The show is filled with one-liners, some cleverer than others. "His performance was like a rash you couldn't reach" is illustrative of the self-deprecating tone.
Scenic designer Nayna Ramey has transformed the Grandel into an intimate nightclub whose colors are so sharply vivid, don't be surprised if you think you've stumbled into the center of a LifeSavers variety pack. The set has been subtly lit by Michael Klaers -- but his lighting is the only subtle thing about the evening. Like Late Nite Catechism, which is playing upstairs at the Grandel, some of this performance is audience-participatory. It was savvy of Fox Associates to produce these two compatible laugh-inducing shows in the same building at the same time; they even share the same playbill. And anyone who despairs that the Fox Theatre's cavernous size is antithetical to live performance now has two opportunities to see the actors' faces up close -- even from the last row.
The nagging problem with Triple Espresso is that, despite its emphasis on mirth, the show builds to nowhere. Suddenly toward the end of the evening it thinks it's a play, which it's not. But hey, why snipe at a phenomenon? It is what it is, and it's performed very well. Better to surrender early and simply laugh along with everyone else.