'Triple Espresso' is the Nickelback of local theater, and there's nothing wrong with that

'Triple Espresso'

'Triple Espresso' Anna Eveslage

Triple Espresso is like the Nickelback of Twin Cities theater: The hipsters love to hate it, but how wrong can a seemingly endless supply of fans be? Nickelback satisfy a deep-seated human desire for sincere rock balladry, while Triple Espresso fills a bottomless thirst for good old-fashioned waka-waka song-and-dance shtick.

New Century Theatre

While the basic format of Triple Espresso harks back to vaudeville and variety specials, its specific content dates to 1995 -- the year that Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley, and Bob Stromberg debuted their revue. Triple Espresso today still has pastel blazers, references to the Clapper and Chariots of Fire, and a cameo appearance by what looks like a Popoid toy. Even the setting, a coffee shop called Triple Espresso, is redolent of the Central Perk era.

The show is loosely framed around a gig by piano man Hugh Butternut (often still Donley, but played by Dane Stauffer on Wednesday night). He invites two of his old pals to join him onstage for a reunion of their on-again-off-again trio. Bobby Bean (Stromberg) is a goofy-grinned singer in the Tommy Smothers mold, while Buzz Maxwell (Arnold) is a deadpan magician. Over the course of two acts, the trio recount their tumultuous history and perform some of their greatest hits.

It makes for a densely packed evening of groaners (“It was 120 degrees in the shade... so we stayed out of the shade!”), audience interaction (including the old shine-a-random-spotlight trick, the way you embarrassed unsuspecting crowd members before the Jumbotron era), and feats of prestidigitation (always on-brand, Arnold causes a shot of espresso to magically appear).

Highlights include Arnold’s comedic shadow-puppet show, which had some of the kids in the audience on Wednesday laughing so hard they were almost gasping for breath; and Arnold’s semi-ironic magic routines, full of intentional gaffes and thick with self-deprecating zingers. On the other hand, a scene that has the guys performing pop hits in “African” style during a visit to Zaire is just as cringe-worthy as it sounds.

The legend of Triple Espresso is that the show was thrown together in six weeks, conceived on a whim as a vehicle for three friends to share the stage. William Partlan of the Cricket Theatre in Minneapolis came on as director, none of the four perhaps suspecting that the show would outlast the Cricket itself.

'Triple Espresso'

'Triple Espresso' Anna Eveslage

Triple Espresso continued on in the Cricket’s former space (now known as the Music Box Theatre, on Nicollet Avenue) all the way until 2008, while spawning touring versions that have now, according to the producers, played to over 2 million people. Not bad, even by Nickelback standards.

The show’s continued to come back around to the Twin Cities, currently at the New Century Theatre, where it’s selling as consistently as ever. Despite two decades of tweaks and polish, Triple Espresso still doesn’t feel over-thought, which is essential to its well-worn charm. These guys know their strengths, and the production plays to them. Yes, the ’90s were a long time ago, but hey, Starbucks is still around...why shouldn’t Triple Espresso be as well?