Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Triple Espresso
Hennepin Theatre Trust
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's reviews of The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood and A Christmas Carol and Arty's review of A Christmas Carole Peterson

Michael Pearce Donley, Bill Arnold, and Bob Stromberg
Photo by Anna Eveslage
Triple Espresso, brewed in Minneapolis from the fertile comic minds of creators Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley, and Bob Stromberg in the mid 1990s, has been a phenomenal success. It played an unbelievable 12-year run at the Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis from 1996 to 2008, returning to that venue for annual holiday engagements until last year. Since its birth, Triple Espresso has played from coast to coast in the U.S.—Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, and a host of points between—set long-run records in San Diego and Des Moines, and been seen by over two million people in over fifty cities in six countries. Like a devoted offspring, it has come home for another holiday engagement, but this time at the New Century Theatre.

Somehow, with this plethora of opportunities, I had never seen it before. It was always on my list but always easy to put off because, well, it'll always be there, right? I finally took the plunge into this percolated brew of caffeinated fun, and will not repeat my mistake. Like many a coffee shop habitué, I will be looking forward to frequent refills.

The premise of Triple Espresso is that the once almost-successful comedy trio of Hugh Butternut, Bobby Bean, and Buzz Maxwell is reunited on the occasion of Hugh's twenty-fifth anniversary performing his lounge act at Triple Espresso Coffee Shop. Why did the act never make the big time, and why did they split up? To find out, we are taken back to their origins and various misadventures, both as a trio and as solos acts. These include magic tricks, a shadow puppet show (ostensibly for kids, but with the coarse humor of "Itchy and Scratch" segments on "The Simpsons"), pop ballads that are obsessively interrupted by the singer's self-congratulatory patter, a gorilla impersonation, a hilarious audience sing-along "Home on the Range," and the piece d' resistance, all three in a nude dance (performed fully clothed, but that turns out to be completely beside the point). The mind boggles at these amazing displays of talent, right? In fact, these, and every other moment of Triple Espresso is so funny, the mind is too busy howling with laughter to be bothered boggling.

Butternut, Bean, and Maxwell ply their talents far and wide, from the class of 1975 freshman orientation at an unnamed college to the Kiwanis Club of Ashtabula, Ohio, Wild Bill Hickok Daze in North Platte, Nebraska to the Henry Mancini Cavalcade of Stars (with celebrity talent judge Roddy McDowell), a flight to Africa for a gig on cable TV in Zaire ("Serving Kinshasa and the World"), and their final blow up on "The Mike Douglas Show." To say nothing of the time all three were contestants on "The Dating Game" and the Chariots of Fire nightmare, not really a performance except in Hugh's fevered mind. Oh, yes, there was also Carnegie Hall. Sort of.

Each of Triple Espresso's creators developed a character perfectly matched to his own talents: Donley's hammed-up Hugh Butternut, with unbridled exuberance at being on stage and baring his emotions in schmaltzy song; Stromberg's loutish Bobby Bean, mining humor from his total lack of self-awareness and continued mangling of both the truth and the pronunciation of anything with three or more syllables; and Arnold's droll Buzz Maxwell, the magician whose downcast mood is the conduit of his humor, delivered in quips and asides that bring to mind Tommy Smothers. In fact, so closely are the creators and their characters matched, that Donley, Stromberg ,and Arnold personally have trained the actors (over thirty, to date) who have stepped into these roles. The performance I attended featured two of the originals, Donley and Arnold, with Brian Kelly playing the part of Bobby Bean. All three are terrific, playing off one another with perfect precision. It felt completely true that these three have shared a long history together, in spite of one of the trio being a recent addition to the cast. Director William Partlan has been with the show from its start as well, which no doubt is another reason for its consistency over time and cast changes.

Having not seen Triple Espresso in its long-time home at the Music Box Theatre, I can't compare that to its new setting, but the New Century is a perfect venue for the show, with its long, shallow stage and low ceiling that provides a coffee shop-like atmosphere. The set is adorned with images of the Triple Espresso logo in black and red tones, Hugh's baby grand piano, and a flip chart that is cleverly used to identify the changing settings throughout the show. Dressed mainly in black shirts, slacks and shoes, the cast wear a signature color dinner jacket to "dress up." Lighting and sound design are in synch with the show, creating the right atmosphere to bring out the humor in each routine. Even the intermission gets in the act, with the sounds of a noisy coffee shop (overlapping conversations and clanging dishes) piped in.

Based on its twelve-year run (plus return visits) in Minneapolis, I am guessing many locals have seen Triple Espresso more than once, and that would be very understandable. While it is not a very sophisticated show, it is a smart show. While heaped with piles of laughs (real laughs, not mild tee-hees), its three characters depict challenging personalities that push us to consider "Am I ever like him?" or "Geez, how would I handle that guy?" And yet, Maxwell, Butternut and Bean are drawn with affection and heart, and are wholesome enough for the whole family. But the laughs are the main event, and I can't think of a show I have seen in years with more laughs per minute.

Triple Espresso, presented by Hennepin Theatre Trust, continues through January 8, 2017, at the New Century Theatre, 615 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $29.00 - $38.00. Children 18 and under are ½ off. Senior and Student discounts are available. For tickets call 612-455-9525 or go to

Writers: Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg; Director: William Partlan; Scenic Design: Nayna Ramey; Costume Designer: Suzanna Schneider; Lighting Designer: Michael Klaers; Technical Sound Designer: John Markiewicz; Sound Effects Design: Rob Barrett and Scott Malchow; Stage Managers: Benjamin Netzley and Joelle Coutu; Executive Producer: Dennis Babcock; Associate Producer: Rosalie Miller; Produced by: The Daniel Group.

Cast: Bill Arnold (Buzz Maxwell *), Michael Pearce Donley (Hugh Butternut), Christopher Hart (Buzz Maxwell *), Brian Kelly (Bobby Bean *), Bob Stromberg (Bobby Bean *). * Actors perform at alternate performances.

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