"The Working Boys Band" falls into that category of theater that is good for you, whether you like it or not.
It's an interesting slice of Minneapolis history, served with a side dish of politics about the anti-German hysteria attendant to World War I, and completed with a couple of budding romances. Sturdy and upright, the musical makes a case for integrity and kindness, values that are far greater than the petty business of earning a paycheck.
These good intentions, however, rarely lift this new show off the ground. Ron Peluso's production, which opened Saturday at the History Theatre, is appropriately workmanlike for the material.
Dominic Orlando wrote the book and lyrics, to Hiram Titus' music. It has the look of "Newsies," with a big band of kids running around, yet it lacks that musical's buoyancy.
The story centers on C.C. Heintzeman, a music professor who in 1917 assembled a band from boys who worked in Minneapolis factories and mills. Jon Andrew Hegge's sad and honest face, his sense of decency and likability persuade us that Heintzeman genuinely had the best interests of the boys at heart. He wanted to help them rise above their station and aspire to "manliness, integrity, intelligence and kindness."
As if by formula, there is one incorrigible lad, Franky, who swaggers with defiance in Ricardo Vázquez's performance. There is also a youngster, Andy, who strikes us as something other than what he appears to be and eventually confirms our suspicions. Christian Bardin plays the role with the appeal of Chaplin's Little Tramp.
Capitalists take it on the chin in Orlando's script. Randy Schmeling is a smarmy transit tycoon who is set on wooing Harriet Kent, Heintzemann's assistant. Kendall Anne Thompson is attractive enough and sings well, but she has little purpose other than being an object for the men.
Jen Burleigh-Bentz, on the other hand, is a thorny patriot who suspects the allegiances of German-born Heintzeman. In a nice echo of 21st-century xenophobia (remember "Freedom Fries?"), Burleigh-Bentz sings of "Liberty Cabbage," when Heintzeman dares to call sauerkraut sauerkraut.
These moments pop up along the way and offer a respite from the humdrum repetition and low-stakes plot. "Moonlight, Loring Park" is a nice ballad deep in the second act that lets Hegge, Thompson, Bardin and Vázquez dream and swoon. Otherwise, the tunes rarely raise our pulse. This should be a show celebrating music, giving full voice to the kids and their instruments in a stirring march. It's only hinted at here.
Peluso's earnest staging uses well the functionality of Rick Polonek's industrial brick factory set. Kathy Kohl's costumes find the right rags, tags and dandy trappings.
"Working Boys" has the appeal of poached (no salt) chicken breast — nutritious, good for you, healthy. If that gets you enthusiastic, dig in.