'Triple Espresso': a latte laughs, but slow in brewing

Times Staff Writer

When a theatrical presentation proves sellable, it can develop into a mini-corporation, with McDonald's-like McReplicas all over the place. That's what has happened with Blue Man Group, "Greater Tuna," "Nunsense" and "2 Pianos 4 Hands," to name just a few such shows.

Also on the list is "Triple Espresso," a slight if diverting variety show-type entertainment that was introduced in Minneapolis in the mid-1990s and shortly thereafter spun off a Southern California branch in San Diego. The show's creator-performers are temporarily working the territory farther north in Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities presentations at Hermosa Beach Playhouse, then at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood.

In its peak moments, "Triple Espresso" is a real guffawinducer. But that happens only intermittently, and mostly in the second half.

According to show lore, the idea was developed over cups of coffee, when solo performers Michael Pearce Donley, Bob Stromberg and Bill Arnold resolved to create something they could perform as a trio. The result: Donley became entertainer Hugh Butternut, deep into a multi-decade run at a java joint known as Triple Espresso. The audience finds itself present at a special gig at which Hugh invites former comedy-team partners Bobby Bean (Stromberg) and Buzz Maxwell (Arnold) to the stage and, after nearly 25 years, tries to resolve bad feelings over their disastrous breakup.

Right away, Hugh sets a cheesy, vaudeville-throwback tone, when he introduces himself with the line: "As many of you know, my name is Hugh Butternut, and hugh butter nut forget it." He's a lounge singer prone to Barbra Streisand-type vocal tics, squeaking, squealing, jumping register and abruptly switching volume, all while oozing off his bench as he accompanies himself on piano.

Invited to the stage, Stromberg's Bobby proves to be a goofy, grinning 5-year-old in a man's body, while Arnold's Buzz is all glower and gloom. They try to recapture their halcyon days but instead blurt out secrets and expose old wounds anew.

Too much of the first half is devoted to story setup, especially the flashback to a college gathering at which Stromberg, in early folk-singing days, tries to engage the audience in a sing-along. The gag sputters along on the pretense of his awful timing, until he drags an audience member onstage and a spark of unpredictability ignites the situation.

Much more amusing is Arnold's magic act, in which hidden props manifest themselves at the wrong moments and cards refuse to be revealed when they're supposed to.

After intermission, the flashback fun becomes more reliable. A misguided trip to find fame in Zaire is re-created in a cable TV appearance at which the guys perform an oldies song medley to an African beat, while executing choreography that keeps jumping cultures, into the realm of the Bollywood musical extravaganza.

And Stromberg redeems himself with an educators-conference demonstration of shadow puppetry, shaping his hands into an extraordinary menagerie of nose-twitching bunnies, sniffing hounds and pouting gorillas.

So, finally, "Triple Espresso," under William Partlan's direction, gets a buzz going. But it's 20 minutes of espresso, watered down with four times that much milk and foam.


'Triple Espresso'

Where: Hermosa Beach Playhouse, Pier Avenue and Pacific Coast Highway

When: 8 p.m. today and Tuesday through next Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday and 2 and 7 p.m. Jan. 29

Ends: Jan. 29

Price: $35 to $45

Contact: (310) 372-4477 or www.civiclightopera.com

Running time: 2 hours


Where: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

When: Opens Feb. 1 and plays 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. on Feb. 5 and 2 p.m. on Feb. 12

Ends: Feb. 12

Price: $35 to $45

Contact: (818) 764-2400

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