All serious theatrical works go through many stages on the road to a full-fledged production. Opening night audiences have it easy: They just sit back, watch, and listen. Prior to the first notes of the overture and that moment of “curtain up,” a production team has worked intensely hard, with many tryouts for audience response, presentations for backers, a myriad of rewrites and adjustments applied to the score, dialog, and blocking over many months (and, not uncommonly, a number of years). I kept this in mind while viewing the premiere of the first act of Coffee, the Musical, an engaging and tuneful work-in-progress presented this past February at the NYC Coffee and Tea Festival.
It appears that director/playwright/actor Robert Galinsky -- co-creator of the show with Greg Kotcher, along with his talented production team, have a hit musical in the works. This initial public performance of the first half of Coffee, the Musical closed with a cliffhanger that left one wanting to see a full production. From what was presented, I could easy imagine this musical evolving into long-running Off-Broadway show, and garnering an Obie (or two or three) along the way.
The musical is set in The Dennis Café, a small neighborhood coffee house with eight or so chairs, a piano, an area for "open mike night," and an antiquated espresso machine. The plot concerns the rough-and-tumble world of owner Dennis Kenna (Galinsky) and his entrepreneurial dreams to make it big in the world of coffee. There is much amusing repartee (and mishegoss) between Dennis and his staff, all leading Dennis to a fateful determination to "go commercial." Charles (J. Harrison Ghee) manages the café and is really a singer. His girlfriend is Heather (Jody Katz), a law student-cum-poetess. The café has its award-winning barista, Robin (Bart Shatto). Catherine "Cat" (Kathleen Monteleone) enters the scene in response to the "help wanted" sign in the café's window and shows an unwholesome obsession with coffee machinery. Rick Richards, a "successful" retired businessman and world traveler, is a café regular who uses it as his office and second home. Two bubble-headed best friends, the Frappuccino Floozies, Fabianne (Shannon Hamm) and Fabius (Alex Kirshner), work at the café, perhaps only so they can ogle Charles.
Mike Ruekberg and Willie Wisely have provided a bouncy and playful array of original songs; each character gets to musically express his/her heartfelt longings. Heather sings the raunchy "Nothing's Gonna Happen 'Til I Get My Morning Coffee" in response to Charles' early morning advances. Charles wails about his call to be a singer in the rousing "What I Was Born to Do." The mysterious Cat tells of her fixation on coffee machinery in the spirited "How Does it Work?" Dennis sings about the road to fame, fortune, and social position (and getting an MBA) in "The Corporate Walk." Heather sings about the wonder of words, writing poetry, and following one's heart in the plaintive "Words." Robin dreams of being something other than a barista, and seeks a quiet and loving world in "Tell Me One Thing in Which You Believe." While Dennis sings the praises of fine coffee, the Frappuccino Floozies counter that they could care less--they just want coffee, period, in "Give Me Coffee, Coffee, Coffee." Pompous businessman Rick recounts his colorful past as he bellows his song about the rigors of being in the Peace Corps during the Vietnam War, "Adapt, Adopt, Improve." Closing this first act, Dennis sings about going for the big money in the upbeat "Go from Black to Green," and the entire cast reprises "Nothing's Gonna Happen 'Til I Get My Morning Coffee." It is the kind of first act closing that leaves you thirsting for more.
This initial public presentation was truly enhanced by a fine cast. These performers are all authentic professionals, with a mass of credits in musicals (both on and off-Broadway) and in pop music. I hope they are available to show their stuff when this well-deserving show is realized in a full-length production.
I look forward to finding out how the story of Coffee, the Musical ends: it certainly had a flavorful beginning. - Jay Reisberg
Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.