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Entertainment & Arts

Review: We liked the movie ‘Grumpy Old Men.’ Why did this musical have to change it?

Grumpy Old Men: The Musical
Ice fishing and songs. That’s “Grumpy Old Men: The Musical” at La Mirada Theatre, with, from left, Gregory North, Ken Page, Hal Linden and Mark Jacoby.
(Jason Niedle)

Live while you can — that’s the big takeaway of many a story, and it’s always a goodie.

It works like gangbusters in the 1993 movie “Grumpy Old Men,” a curmudgeonly comedy about small-town neighbors whose lifelong feud leaves them stewing in the past while their golden years race toward sunset. Amid all of the orneriness, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau generated their usual backhanded warmth, and the piece remains fondly remembered enough to make it ripe for movie-to-musical treatment.

So now we have “Grumpy Old Men: The Musical,” which emerged in 2011 in Winnipeg, Canada, and resurfaced last summer in Ogunquit, Maine. Refinements have been made along the way, and McCoy Rigby Entertainment and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts have lined up to give the show a try.

Despite above-the-title placement, Hal Linden, Ken Page and Cathy Rigby do not occupy the movie’s Lemmon, Matthau and Ann-Margret roles. Don’t be disappointed, though. They’re onstage a lot, and the leads are strong, recognizable players: Mark Jacoby, Gregory North and Leslie Stevens.

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Whereas the movie was just crass enough to give it a bit of crackle, the stage version feels as though it’s written entirely in insults and double entendres. That didn’t seem to faze the opening-night audience, which tittered at each scandalous line. The score — a slick Broadway sound echoing pop styles from the 1940s through the ’80s — also kept the room energized.

Yet like too many film adaptations, this one fails to live by that old Latin maxim: First, do no harm.

The story is set in a riverside Minnesota town where ice fishing lends purpose to long winters. More of Wabasha’s townsfolk are part of the action now; unfortunately, they’re all exaggeratedly kooky.

The central characters are more cartoonish too, but not pushed quite so far.

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Swapped epithets and one-upmanship are daily routine for next-door widowers John Gustafson (Jacoby) and Max Goldman (North). Then an artsy, exotic out-of-towner (Stevens) moves in across the street, and triangulated romance propels the rivalry to new levels.

Jacoby wins the audience’s empathy as the more introspective combatant. Page lends his natural warmth — and lush bass — to a life-affirming role as the guys’ mutual pal, while Linden plays naughty-boy as John’s randy, 94-year-old dad. New to the story is Chuck’s sweet if daffily literal-minded cousin, portrayed in an unbreakable deadpan by Rigby.

Matt Lenz directs here, as he did in Maine, where Linden, Jacoby and Stevens all performed. The sets, props and costumes — envisioning Wabasha as a folksy place of cozy old homes and scruffy pines — have been rented from that production.

Grumpy Old Men: The Musical
Welcome to Wabasha, Minn. Its cartoony residents are played by, from left, Fatima El-Bashir, Leslie Stevens, Cathy Rigby, Ken Page and Heather Jane Rolff.
(Jason Niedle)

Who created the show? You’d have to be a trivia hound to recognize them. Composer Neil Berg wrote a rock musical called “The 12,” seen in Denver. The lyricist, the late Nick Meglin, was an editor at Mad magazine. The book is by Dan Remmes, an actor-writer whose plays include the locally produced “What Doesn’t Kill Us.”

The songs, with their clever wordplay, are a nice addition. Otherwise, ugh. Plot tweaks tilt the feud toward mean-spiritedness. The characters’ cartoonishness hollows the story. The dialogue’s amplified sexuality develops an edge. And the story’s resolution — its heart — gets rushed.

Net result: a considerable loss of the movie’s warmth. And amid winters like Wabasha’s, you need all the warmth you can get.

'Grumpy Old Men: The Musical'
Where: La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Oct. 13

Tickets: $14-$84

Info: (714) 994-6310, lamiradatheatre.com

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes


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