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Articles & Reviews

Sacramento Bee

'Triple Espresso' at Cosmo Cabaret is high-octane funny

Sacramento Press

Get Your Caffeinated Laughs With Cosmopolitan Cabaret's Triple Espresso

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CLO Cabaret show 'Triple Espresso' is good to the last laugh

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

'Triple Espresso' invigorates with a shot of genial comedy

The Arizona Republic, Phoenix

Actors Theatre delivers a 'Triple' shot of laughs

City News, Rochester, NY

"Triple Espresso" A Decent Shot

Des Moines Insider

Clean Comedy Returns in Style

Gwinnett Herald, Atlanta

"Triple Espresso' keeps the laughs coming

City View, Des Moines

Laughing at and with them

Des Moines Register
City Savors second serving of comedy 'Triple Espresso'

Metro Life, Dublin, Ireland

Caffeinated cavalcade

Lavender Magazine, Minneapolis

Triple Espresso

The Beach Reporter, Los Angeles

Zesty Espresso

The Sunday Times, Culture Ireland

Triple Espresso

Pioneer Press, St. Paul

Triple Espresso has brewed up big money for small venues

San Diego Union-Tribune

Plays like Triple Espresso and Beehive keep buzzing for years

Reviews Gate, London

A highly caffeined comedy that's a barrel of laughs

Des Moines Register

Trio Serves Potful of Laughs

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Triple Espresso Still Buzzing After 6 Years

Los Angeles Times

Perc Collators

San Diego Union Tribune

Charged Up Comedy Has Universal Appeal

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Shamelessly corny, Espresso is funny



'Triple Espresso' at Cosmo Cabaret is high-octane funny

Sacramento Bee

Marcus Crowder

June 5, 2012

As much as we know theater alchemy exists where disparate elements come together to create an experience greater than the sum of its parts, the same happens in comedy.

The subtlety of creating comic characters and laughable situations, and landing jokes, is an acknowledged art form. There is no formula, even though we can point to what works.

Occasionally, the chemistry of performers and material transcends what one might reasonably expect.

So it is in the case of "Triple Espresso," now at the Cosmopolitan Cabaret, where the highly acclaimed production is ridiculously funny.

It's the kind of show that causes you to think, "I haven't laughed this hard in a long time."

You cannot have, because few shows have this much comedic talent and intelligence going for them.

Written and performed by Michael Pearce Donley, Bob Stromberg and Bill Arnold, "Triple Espresso" works like a comedy encyclopedia with its breadth of gags and understanding of where and when to use them. It's much, much more comedy than theater, but with enough of a reasonable story thread to carry a narrative beginning to end.

The play ostensibly shows us the reunion of the comedic trio of Buzz Maxwell (Arnold), Hugh Butternut (Donley), and Bobby Bean (Stromberg) who imploded on the verge of their big break – an appearance on "The Mike Douglas Show."

I have to add a caveat here because so much of the production's success comes from performers and the play's creators of the play I saw opening night; they are in the show only through Sunday.

The actors who follow, Christopher Hart (as Maxwell), Paul Somers (Butternut) and Brian Kelly (Bean), are seasoned performers intensely trained in the show, which they've also performed around the country. Still, they have large shoes to fill.

Donley's Butternut, who opens the show, is a jovial lounge pianist projecting more style and overly interpretive drama than he knows what to do with. Stromberg's Bean is an optimistic over-reacher, while Arnold's circumspect Maxwell performs the funniest inept magic show you'll ever encounter. We see each in his own segment as they trace the downward paths of their collective careers, which have landed them at Triple Espresso, a coffee house where Hugh is the entertainer of record.

The laughs are continuous because they're not based on the same joke. There are sight gags, running gags, call-backs, verbal humor in the form of puns and malapropisms, physical humor and simple goofy behavior. It's all performed with precise timing and an often disarmingly elegant physicality that elevates the production.

While the performers often engage the audience, the jokes are on them and they just don't stop coming.

The California Musical Theatre's new musical comedy production at Cosmopolitan Cabaret for a limited engagement is a hilarious three-man compendium of all that is funny.

Get Your Caffeinated Laughs With Cosmopolitan Cabaret's Triple Espresso

Sacramento Press

Allison Baker

June 4, 2012

Cosmopolitan Cabaret’s Triple Espresso is one shot of musical comedy, one shot of slapstick antics, one shot of audience participation—and is hilarious on all accounts. The vaudeville-style show is centered on the reunion of the semi-successful, but ultimately failed, trio act of “Maxwell, Butternut, and Bean.” With the help of the audience (no one is safe from the spotlight here), the three performers recount their downward crawl to fame using magic tricks, “nude” dancing, sing-alongs, and the most impressive shadow puppetry you’ll see this side of kindergarten.

Hugh Butternut (Michael Pearce Donley) is the act’s piano man, Bobby Bean (Bob Stromberg) the loveable idiot, and Buzz Maxwell (Bill Arnold) is the comic magician with a not-so-sleight of hand. Together, they are the funniest unintentionally funny act the world has ever seen.

Perhaps the most unique feature of Triple Espresso is that it has been acted and performed by its authors for the majority of the show’s 14-year run. Through June 10, audiences will see original cast members Arnold, Donley, and Stromberg perform the roles they created to showcase their unique talents. And beginning June 12, Christopher Hart, Paul Somers, and Brian Kelly— all handpicked and talented in their own right—will adeptly take on the roles of Maxwell, Butternut, and Bean.

Triple Espresso is a high-energy show that appeals to audiences both young and old—there is truly something for everyone. As a character says in the show, “There is music, there is pain—it’s bright.”

'Triple Espresso' invigorates with shot of genial comedy

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Alice T. Carter

October 2, 2010


Things are perking up at the CLO Cabaret, where "Triple Espresso" is playing through Jan. 9.

Coyly subtitled "a highly caffeinated comedy," it's the tale of three misguided and moderately talented guys who refuse to allow a lack of success to stop them from pursuing show-business careers.

It's set in 2002, as Hugh Butternut is celebrating his 25-year gig singing and playing piano at the Triple Espresso Coffeehouse. The evening becomes an uncomfortable reunion for Butternut and his two former partners, Bobby Bean and Buzz Maxwell. The threesome's act had dissolved after a series of incredibly disastrous career moves.

Interspersed with snippets of song and dance, interludes of audience interaction, some magic tricks and an abundance of goofy, laugh-out-loud comedy, it's an amiable, often funny way to pass two hours.

Much of the show is spent with the men recounting and reliving how they met and the disasters they brought upon themselves.

Notable among their career moves is the joint decision to hawk everything they own to fly to Kinshasa to appear on Cable Zaire for what they earnestly believe will be their big career break.

They also relive their biggest opportunity -- an appearance on "The Mike Douglas Show" -- in a riotously funny segment relating the last-minute improvisational decision that ruined their careers.

Dane Stauffer, Brian Kelly and Christopher Hart are first-rate, talented performers who bring a goofy charm to this trio of characters whose dreams, enthusiasms and self-esteem far outweigh their artistic abilities and good judgment.

Stauffer plays Butternut whose theme song might well be "Stayin' Alive." Stauffer imbues the part with all the smarmy charm and patter you'd expect from a guy whose career high comes from playing piano in a small town Midwestern coffee shop.

Kelly's Bobby Bean is the class clown whose ape imitation sends Butternut's chances at a concert piano competition down in flames.

Hart portrays the neurotic Maxwell, whose lame attempts at card tricks and sleight-of-hand wizardry entertain in ways his character never anticipated. His ineptitude and recoveries are some of the biggest laugh-getters of the evening. In real life, Hart is a talented magician, a skill that he shows off best as the show progresses and his character's ability improves.

The first half of the show moves more slowly than necessary. But redemption comes after intermission, when the energy, pacing and laughter pick up in a rush to the final moment.

Those who attend "Triple Espresso" hoping for deep insights into the human condition or profound conclusions will be disappointed. But this wryly funny, often inventive comedy provides enough laughter and entertainment to make your own problems with career and relationships seem minor.


CLO Cabaret show 'Triple Espresso' is good to the last laugh

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sharon Eberson

September 23, 2010


"Triple Espresso" banks on theatergoers yearning for no-holds-barred comedy from a kinder, gentler time.

The CLO Cabaret show has hit on a formula that delivers PG-rated hijinks without seeming childish, owing its format more to vaudeville-style variety shows than musicals.

It's hard to imagine that during its 14 years of traveling to theaters far and wide, "Triple Espresso" has often played houses of more than a few hundred seats. The intimate Cabaret at Theater Square, which it will call home into next year, is sized just right for the cast of three.

"Triple Espresso" unfolds as a reunion of a comedy trio that crashed and burned years earlier because of a misguided "fan dance" routine on "The Mike Douglas Show."

Manic lounge singer/piano player Hugh Butternut (Dane Stauffer) has settled into a gig at the coffeehouse Triple Espresso. We are treated to a few quick-fire Pittsburgh references -- Turtle Creek, Wilmerding, Zelienople -- as a way to localize the shop.

Hugh has invited his former partners to a celebratory show at the coffee shop, much to the chagrin of stoic magician Buzz Maxwell (Christopher Hart). He holds a grudge against over-the-top comedian, language mangler and incorrigible schemer Bobby Bean (Brian Kelly), who persuaded the trio to do an untried routine for that fateful TV appearance.

Their references, music and otherwise, are mostly stuck in the 1970s, when they were still show-biz hopefuls.

The laughs build slowly, as we get to know the characters and their relationships. Mr. Kelly's Bobby gets the showiest and funniest routines, in particular cavorting around the stage and in the audience as an ape. The scene is a flashback to when his buddy Hugh was entered in a piano-playing contest, to be judged by Roddy McDowall, a star in the "Planet of the Apes" movie franchise.

During Hugh's performance, Bobby lumbers about in a dead-on aping of, well, an ape, all the while ignoring Buzz's pleas to stop.

Bobby also brings an audience member onstage during a folksy cowboy song and saddles his guest with sing-along props. The fellow I saw was a reluctant participant who eventually went with the flow, and Mr. Kelly brought him through the act with aplomb.

Mr. Hart's Buzz could be a thankless role, with his anger toward Bobby constantly boiling below the surface. But his wide eyes and pursed lips draw us into his suffering until he can no longer seethe in silence. Mr. Hart, whose hands are his fame -- he was Thing in the "Addams Family" movies -- mixes magic with comic timing. When he's not shooting daggers at Bobby, he makes apparently simple tricks with decks of cards or cups and balls both fun and, well, magical.

As Hugh, Mr. Stauffer mugs through songs and strife, and tries to play mediator for his friends. Just after intermission, he takes requests from the audience -- on the night I was there, he put his spin on Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs," Elton John's "Benny and the Jets" and the Captain & Tenille hit "Muskrat Love," each with equal amounts piano-playing proficiency and silliness.

It's revealed that Hugh had a breakdown and got through it with Buzz's help, while Bobby went on dreaming and scheming. Apologies are not just beside the point, giving the show its heart.

All three participate in a dream-sequence race to the "Chariots of Fire" theme song and the hysterical climax, an approximation of that ill-fated, televised fan dance.

It's visual humor that's flat-out funny, anytime, anywhere.


Actors Theatre delivers a 'Triple' shot of laughs

The Arizona Republic

Kerry Lengel

Sept. 14, 200

A variety show gussied up as a play, "Triple Espresso" is about as old-fashioned as entertainment gets these days. Corny? Well, it's got shadow puppets and a "Home on the Range" sing-along, so, sure, it's corny.

It's also laugh-out-loud funny and stays that way for a full two hours. That's no mean feat, especially for a family-friendly show that's about as risqué as a Disney flick.

A touring production out of Minneapolis, where it played continuously for 12 years, "Triple Espresso" was a big hit for Actors Theatre last spring and is making a return visit. As a bonus, all three original writer-performers are in town for the majority of the run.

The show is staged as a reunion of three showbiz failures 25 years after their disastrous debut on national television. Hugh Butternut (Michael Pearce Donley) is the eager-to-please piano man who keeps interrupting his own performances to chat up the audience. Bobby Bean (Bob Stromberg) is an accidental comedian and world-class doofus whose attempts to make the trio famous always end in catastrophe. And Buzz Maxwell (Bill Arnold) is an incompetent magician and serious sourpuss, whose deadpan delivery might just be the funniest thing in the show.

As the performers leisurely unwind the tale of their professional implosion, "Triple Espresso" plays out as a series of comic set pieces, such as a dream sequence that combines "Chariots of Fire" and the Three Stooges, or the aforementioned shadow-puppet presentation, which includes a nose-picking gorilla and a (very) shortened retelling of "Bambi."

Donley and Stromberg, the original Butternut and Bean, are a bit more understated than the acting pros who punched up those roles last season (and will again in the middle leg of the current run). Which version is better might be a matter of taste, although there's a real sense of camaraderie among the show's creators that isn't easy to replicate, even if the replacement players deliver some of the physical comedy with a keener edge.

Either way, "Triple Espresso" delivers the laughs.



"Triple Espresso" A Decent Shot

City News, Rochester, NY

Eric Rezsnyak

"Triple Espresso" doesn't just break the fourth wall, it tears it down completely. Even before the show begins, the line between performer and audience is blurred. During the obligatory loudspeaker spiel - turn off your cell phone, emergency exits are to the front and back - the announcer cracks a joke about a brown Pinto parked out front that actually works into the story later in the show. Many plays have used the show-within-a-show/audience-is-the-audience motif. If anything, "Triple Espresso" takes it even farther, as the audience plays the part of many audiences over the three performers' careers. Oh, and it's also very, very funny.

When it starts, "Triple Espresso" is set in a fictitious Rochester coffeehouse of the same name on the night of Hugh Butternut's 25th anniversary as the coffeehouse's live entertainment. To help celebrate his big night, Hugh has invited his two former partners, comedian Bobby Bean and magician Buzz Maxwell, to join him onstage. Things predictably go horribly wrong since Buzz can't stand the incompetent Bean, and the mentally unstable Butternut can barely keep it together. Ultimately the trio ends up rehashing their showbiz misadventures, from moderate initial individual success to embarrassing group performances that nearly destroyed their careers more than once.

And so the audience is transported from the colorful coffeehouse to a particularly awful freshman orientation concert at a college in the early 1970's, to a Kiwanis Club luncheon, to a Wild West revue, to "The Mike Douglas Show," then even to a spectacular TV special on "Cable Zaire," all set to music, broad comedy, and magic.

"Triple Espresso" has a narrative, but it's really a showcase for the talents of the three actors, who each get to perform separately, and then as a group. As Hugh Butternut, Dane Stauffer oozes that over-the-top, eager-to-please cheesiness that often defines lounge singers in the film and television lampoons. His Hugh is so pathetic and clueless that he wouldn't seem out of place in a Christopher Guest movie as he butchers "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and other soft-rock hits. But Stauffer himself has a lovely voice and is totally game for the somewhat emasculating role. And if that was really him playing the piano during his talent competition bit, he's kind of amazing


Duane Daniels' Bobby Bean is an incompetent boob who ruins just about everything, but he's also funny as hell - responsible for the majority of the laughs throughout the show. Bean has a kind of old-timey Vaudevillian shtick, employing sing-a-long gags and shadow puppets to great effect, along with his expressive mugging to the audience. The bit where he behaves like an ape during Butternut's big piano number is uproarious.

Certainly not least is magician Christopher Hart as curmudgeon Buzz. Buzz has a milquetoast, extra-dry sense of humor that Hart fully takes advantage of, and he has the added bonus of employing some charming magic tricks. His earlier disastrous performances have a self-deprecating humor about them, but his later, polished tricks are real crowd-pleasers. His sleight of hand was my favorite part of the show.

If you want some good, clean, family-friendly fun, it's a perfectly entertaining two hours with some very funny bits courtesy of three very talented performers.


Clever comedy returns in style

Todd Razor

November 28, 2008

Paul Somers, Patrick Albanese and John Bush "Triple Espresso," Iowa's longest-running show, returned to the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines at the Temple Theater last week.

This quirky comedy, which takes a nostalgic look at the intersecting careers of the three entertainers, is laced with intentional puns, audience sing-alongs and a heavy dose of jollity.

The intimacy of the Temple Theater, which seats fewer than 300 patrons, is the perfect venue for the highly charged performances directed by William Partlan. Written by [Michael Pearce Donley] Bill Arnold and Bob Stromberg, the show has an intimate feel that resonates with audiences in a way rarely experienced in larger-scale productions.

Hugh Butternut (Paul Somers) is an entertainer who never really made it to the top. Buzz Maxwell (Patrick Albanese), the most reserved and stoic of the three, wants to be star. And Bobby Bean (John Bush), a playful and somewhat senseless personality, loves to act out.

The development of these eccentric characters unfolds marvelously during the two-hour show, giving "Triple Espresso" a personable quality that drew me in and kept me wanting more. Top-notch artistic direction, including the skillful use of simple props and lighting also added merit, including the best hand-shadow puppets I have ever seen. And the naked dancing was, well, I guess you just have to experience it for yourself.

"Triple Espresso," an interactive and endearing family-friendly show, is a heck of a good time.


Georgia Ensemble Theatre: 'Triple Espresso' keeps the laughs coming

Hatcher Hurd

April 28, 2008

Bob Farley, artistic director for Roswell's Georgia Ensemble Theatre, told me he has been trying to acquire the rights to produce "Triple Espresso," GET's spring comedy that opened last week, for the last eight years.

Now I know why.

I know why because I had one of the best theater experiences I've had in years when I went to see "Espresso." It is funny, funny, funny. It is not morally uplifting, but it is funny. It is not intellectually stimulating, but it is funny. It is not a treatise on the ultimate redemption of man, but it is well you get the picture.

So I decided I would sit down and write something about this hilarious little play I went to see. I noticed when Bob told me how excited he was about getting the play, he was so enthusiastic. But he really did not say much about "Triple Espresso" itself.

Instead, he talked about how much he laughed. Now that I have seen the play, too, I understand why describing the play is somewhat difficult. But print is a poor two-dimensional medium when used to explain something like "Espresso."

Instead of telling people what the play is about, you sort of meander off on tangents. And just as a line that only intersects a circle at one point, so do descriptions of what the play is about touch but one point on a 360-degree plane.

Understand? I thought not. Well, so much for using geometry to explain what "Espresso" is about. Did I hear someone say, "Try English"? OK, I'll try that. Try to think of the best Marx Brothers movie you ever saw, and then think how you would explain it to someone who had never seen the Marx Brothers before. Sort of pointless, isn't it?

If I could write as funny as the actors act, I wouldn't be writing this, now would I? But for the straight-line purists among you, I will try.

Imagine if you will, there is a lounge singer/pianist (Dane Stauffer, who bears a striking similarity to Jim Carrey) who had just enough talent, just enough show biz savvy to hang on 25 years as the sole entertainment at a coffee bistro. That's 25 years of singing "Muskrat Love" and "I Write the Songs." Imagine what Dante would have done with that.

He is joined by his two former partners (Duane Daniel and Patrick Albanese who are also living on the fringes of show business for a reunion of sorts. (Think of a weekend with your ex and her mother.) Yet as they reminisce about the bad old days, we find they were actually a great comedy team. Too bad they were trying to be a singing trio and didn't know it.

That's about as far as I can go in telling you what this is all about. It really defies any kind of coherent description. But I can tell you I really liked Cable Zaire and the Mike Douglas show – arguably the worst television debut ever.

But I have to admit my favorite part was the monkey. The monkey was really cool.

The three actors, who really are talented by the way, give this manic rollercoaster its magic. Stauffer, Daniel and Albanese create a bond among one another that makes you believe that, yes, maybe these guys are masochistic enough to meet again after 25 years and relive all those painful moments from their time as an act together.

But if you go see "Espresso" – and you really should – be prepared to do more than sit idly and hold your sides from laughing so hard. There is some audience participation along the way. And unlike most attempts at this sort of thing, it just adds to the insanity.

I think that may be it. These three guys create an insane world, and suddenly you are being drawn into it to become a part of all this madness. And you laugh. Very much. A lot. And then you laugh some more.

And as you leave the theater, you are smiling. It's a sardonic kind of smile. And you think to yourself, now why did I laugh that much? Was it really that funny?

And then you think about the monkey.


Laughing at and with them

City View

Adam Brink

November 30, 2006


‘Triple Espresso’ is back, so be careful when taking that next sip of coffee.

It’s always interesting to get acquainted with a phenomenon. When finally meeting face-to-face, you start asking questions. Is the legend in question really deserving of so much admiration? Is it that brilliant?

In the case of “Triple Espresso” — which has returned to The Temple for Performing Arts after a much-publicized 68-week run that modestly slunk into town in October 2002 but left carrying the title of Iowa’s longest-running show — it’s hard not to ask: Is it really that funny?

To answer that question, just point your ears toward the Temple on any night that “Triple Espresso” is being performed. That hysterical laughter you hear isn’t coming from a pack of hyenas lining up for lattes on Locust; it’s the crowd going crazy for Butternut, Bean and Maxwell, the provocateurs of the Triple Espresso Coffeehouse.

“Triple Espresso” revolves around the ruptured friendship between these three entertainers, Hugh Butternut (Paul Somers), Bobby Bean (John Bush) and Buzz Maxwell (Patrick Albanese), and the big question marks hanging between them and the audience, as posed by the show’s promotional material: “What did 3 guys do in 4 minutes that got them barred from show business for life? And why would they do it again 25 years later?”

In revealing the answers to these questions, Butternut, Bean and Maxwell sing (off-key), dance (like rejects from a Bee Gees tribute band), and make objects vanish into thin air (until said objects roll back onto the stage). Given their abilities as singers, dancers and magicians, whatever trauma they shared in their past had to be extraordinarily embarrassing.

And one person’s humiliation is another’s entertainment. “Espresso” serves up humiliation times three.

You don’t have to be too big of a cynic to become worried when first seeing the “Espresso” set, which appears to have been inspired by the dull-edged world of “Friends” and points to cheese rather than wit. And when Butternut’s singing starts to drip with lactose-laced vivacity, eyes begin to roll simultaneously with the onset of laughter — aimed squarely at Butternut.

Like any good set up, these elements disarm the audience. And just when we think we are laughing at three botched entertainers, we realize we are laughing with three very capable performers.

Somers, Bush and Albanese walk a comic tightrope and never veer toward the safety net. What could get old really fast — laughing at failures — is kept fresh by their ability to play off the audience and by the fact that they can truly croon and impersonate characters far more complex than all-American rejects.

As someone who finds the antics of Sacha Baron Cohen as the gold standard of comedy, I was surprised to find myself laughing at a show that is completely devoid of politics, religion and sex. But far from being neutered, the show uses the fractures that have formed in this fictional friendship as the source of tension and release that would otherwise be provided by such hot-button issues.

Sure, the show isn’t non-stop comedy. But if what’s on stage is momentarily dry, just watch your fellow audience members.

Constructed like a café, the audience can bring coffee — or something stronger — into the theater to consume while watching the show. The earlier reference to hysterical hyenas was not an exaggeration, perhaps as a result of a heavy-handed gin and tonic. I sat next to a woman who could barely stay seated due to her uncontrollable laughter — which usually came before any punch line was delivered. And she was far from the only one intensely connected to the show.

I also witnessed an individual turn his coffee into a fine mist when he took an ill-timed drink just before the delivery of a well-timed joke.

“Triple Espresso” delivers the equivalent of comic oatmeal: it sticks with you. For instance, I can’t get John Bush’s courtship of Roddy McDowall out of my head. But I try not to think about it right before I take a sip of coffee.

(The Civic Center presents “Triple Espresso” at The Temple Theater, located at 10th and Locust in downtown Des Moines through Dec. 31. Tickets are $30-$36; www.civiccenter.org.)

Stage notes

After you’ve had your fill of turkey, stuffing and bourbon, and taken that well-deserved post-gluttony nap, The Des Moines Playhouse may be your next stop before reheating the leftovers. You can catch performances of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” Nov. 25-26, with an added performance on Nov. 24 at 4 p.m. For ticket information, visit www.dmplayhouse.com or call 277-6261. CV

City Savors second serving of comedy 'Triple Espresso"

Des Moines Register

Erin Crawford

November 6, 2006

The coffee-laced comedy juggernaut "Triple Espresso," which ran for 68 weeks its first time in town, is back. Some fans had a bit of a caffeine addiction the first time the show was in Des Moines."Triple Espresso" is scheduled to play through Dec. 31 at the Temple for Performing Arts.

Because the audience interaction varies each night, they saw the slapstick-filled show several times, returning for a reliable laugh.

During intermission, I overheard a few of those people compare the number of performances they've seen.

Set in a coffee shop, "Triple Espresso" is the reunion of a bitterly broken apart comedic trio: Maxwell, Butternut and Bean. They rediscover their old bits, sing the greatest hits of the '70s and argue tediously about old times. The show is best described as pleasant comedic fluff, fun but with as much bite as a steaming cup of milk.

A few of the bits still killed me the second time around - shadow puppets, I'm talking to you.

Still, while "Triple Espresso" isn't a show I'd run back to for more, I found myself sitting in the audience thinking: "Mom would love this." "Dad would love this." "Why didn't I bring my grandparents along for this?" In short, the show is family-proof.

You can feel safe that anyone you bring to the show to kill a couple of hours during the holidays is going to chuckle his or her way through it. It is as well-produced and staged as any show you'll find locally, and it feels as if it has money behind it. It does - the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines is the producer.

Two of the actors in the show are from the original Temple cast - John Bush and Patrick Albanese.
Both are excellent, as always, in their roles. Bush is Bobby Bean, the goofy nitwit of a folk singer who at his funniest point berates the audience into singing "Home on the Range."

Albanese plays the misanthropic magician, Buzz Maxwell, skilled at sleight of hand and sarcastic comments. He comes out swinging when he calls the three-man act a "slow, five-year donkey ride to disaster."

The third performer, Paul Somers as Hugh Butternut, anchors the show as an earnest lounge singer act, funniest when he suffers a complete nervous breakdown.

It makes you wonder how great Tom Jones could be if he completely lost his mind.

The plot is beside the point. It serves as a vehicle to show the performers' many acts and considerable talents at magic, song and physical comedy. If Mom's looking bored, there are many, many worse things you could do than buy tickets.


Caffeinated cavalcade


Daragh Reddin

August, 2006

Hugh Butternut (Paul Somers) is the regular pianist at a popular coffee house, Triple Espresso and to celebrate 25 years playing at the same venue, he has called upon his old buddies Bobby Bean (Brian Kelly) and Buzz Maxwell (Bill Arnold) to join him for an evening of music, magic and nostalgia. The three hapless performers met on a blind date programme several years previously an formed an ill-fated entertainment troupe soon after. In flashback they take the audience for a surreal trip down memory lane, recounting their rise and fall as a kind of a camp, light-entertainment act (with a questionable degree of talent),  whose chances of stardom were eventually scuppered by an ill-advised vaudeville routine on national television. 

There follows some very funny and strangely diverting performances, the many highlights of which include a folk sing-along to Home on The Range spliced with My Home's In Montana, a pseudo African dance routine for Cable Zaire, a hilariously inept magic show and the Mancini Cavalcade of Stars; here Hugh's stab at stardom participating in a blindfold piano recital is destroyed  thanks to Bobby's impersonation of a gorilla (designed to impress celebrity judge and Planet Of the Apes star, Roddy McDowell).

It's hard not to enjoy Triple Espresso; sure , it's inoffensive and perhaps a tad schmaltzy in places but it's also tremendous fun and had the audiences frequently roaring with laugher. The three performers are keen and and likeable throughout; a zany Somers provides able piano accompaniment, Kelly is terrific as the goofy, slightly dim Bobby Bean (who has a strange gift for inciting the audience to cut loose), while Arnold provides some balance as the deadpan magician, who anticipates each fiasco but remains part of the group nonetheless. And the final debacle on The Mike Sullivan Show, involving six sheets of paper and a futile attempt to preserve some modesty is worth the price of a ticket alone.

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Triple Espresso

Lavender Magazine

John Townsend

July, 2006

It’s easy enough to diss Triple Espresso, the long-running musical comedy at Music Box Theatre, for its enormous popularity and lack of interest in any substantive theme. But given the macho inclination
and indoctrination of our current day, it’s actually a breath of fresh air. No, Triple Espresso is not by any stretch some touchy-feely view of sensitive men. It simply presents three crooners past their prime “who were never a comedy team intentionally.” Two of them are in playful mode, and one is not.
Without putting too fine a point on the piece, it’s nice to see the mellower, gentler side of masculine men having a good time at no one’s expense but their own. Triple Espresso is like a heightened,
wholesome lounge act. Nayna Ramey’s set glistens with striking multicolored tiles and
perky images of coffee service paraphernalia posing as a city skyline. It could pass for a shticky but fetching design in a Vegas casino espresso shop. The trio pays cheesy homage to the 1970s in sequin jackets, blue blazers, and proto-Goth black, with nods to the young Michael Jackson, Saturday Night Fever, and Paul Anka (remember Havin’ My Baby?)— and, of course, the theme from Rocky. The production has a fabulous spoof on stage nudity, and, believe it or not, an inspired presentation of hand-formed silhouettes featuring apes, dogs, and rabbits. From pelvic thrusts imitating Tom Jones to blindfolded piano playing to magic tricks, Triple Espresso’s Paul Somers, John Bush, and Christopher Hart charm with nostalgic finesse.

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Zesty Espresso

The Beach Reporter

Kent Stoddart

January 26, 2006

Up the 405 from San Diego via Minneapolis comes Michael Pearce Donley's wacky comedy Triple Espresso, now residing at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse through Jan. 29. Donley and his comedic cohorts Bill Arnold and Bob Stromberg serve up a rich blend of frenetic humor that can make the most tired of cynics hyperactively roll with laughter.

Musician/comedian (Donley), magician/comedian (Arnold) and slapstick comedian (Stromberg) represent a diverse arrangement of entertainers. However, it is the common denominator of comedian that binds these varying flavors together. These types of diversity yet blend are reminiscent of the early Marx Brothers. Even though the artists have distinct modes of expression and varying styles of delivery, they have a strong compulsion to work together. This compulsion to work collectively and find a venue that accentuates their individual talents is the key to the Donley's comedy.

The three artists become strained, creating conflict and humor, as they collectively search for a vehicle to display their unique talents. This leads the trio to obscure and very funny venues throughout the midwest and Africa. The culmination of the show is the vaudevillian striptease the comedy team attempts, without rehearsal, on the Mike Douglas Show. The routine becomes a surreal homage to 1970's afternoon talk, shows, which makes that particular episode of the Dinah Shore Show with guest stars Iggy Pop, David Bowie and Rosemary Clooney seem normal. The familiar quality and dynamics of the show rests in the artist distinct personalities and talents. The reason the music, magic and physical shtick work so beautifully in Triple Espresso is due to perfect timing and build.

These artists are technicians who know their craft. The broadest to the subtlest of comedic moments are delivered with perfect pitch and tempo. As the show progresses and builds toward its inherent climax, each hoke, trick or bit of physical business layers and fills out the proceeding routine or episode. This makes a two-hour show with intermission seem disappointingly quick.

Triple Espresso is tight, neat and garnished with a twist of zest.

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Triple Espresso

The Sunday Times, Culture Ireland

Declan Burke

September 4, 2005

A quarter century after they went their separate ways, the 1970's cabaret trio Maxwell, Butternut and Bean reunite at the Triple Espresso coffee bar to reminisce, bicker and apportion generous dollops of blame, Bean (Keith Reay with Bill Arnold and Danny Jacobs) is a singer and comedian, Maxwell (Arnold) a comic and magician, while Butternut (Jacobs) is a louge-lizard piano player. The story of the trio's frequent successes, failure and splits forms the narrative framework for a display of talents that include mime, shadow puppetry and-in Reay's case-a penchant for puns and malapropisms. Based on a show written by Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg, this is family-friendly sing-along fare complete with audience participation. Directed by William Partlan, this production is energetic, slick and vibrant, with Arnold's cynical, deadpan asided occasionally puncturing the exuberant mood.

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Triple Espresso has brewed big money for small venues
Pioneer Press
David Hawley
Nov. 28, 2004

When you think of big-money theater, you think it's shows like "The Lion King" and the latest "Christmas Carol" that are hauling in the big bucks, right?

Well, yes. But consider "Triple Espresso," the laugh-laden show that three entertainers from the Twin Cities cobbled together back in 1996 for a performance in the fellowship hall of a suburban Presbyterian church.

More than $32 million in tickets have been sold since that first church-hall effort, and the three originators — Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg — are still performing it with all the focused enthusiasm of an opening night.

Meanwhile, the national and international marketing of the show has evolved into a kind of "Triple Espresso Inc." The show is currently running in four other cities — Cleveland, San Diego, Denver and Tulsa — and the producers expect the combined holiday gross income to be about $250,000 a week.

World production headquarters for the enterprise is a storefront office next door to the Music Box Theatre on Nicollet Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, just a block from the city's convention center. The show has been running continuously at the Music Box since 1997, but that's just the throne room of the empire.

Executive Producer Dennis Babcock uses huge wall-mounted charts to keep track of "Triple Espresso" incarnations. Thirty actors have gone through a laborious training process to replicate the piston-precision performances of the original roles: the cloying lounge-act pianist (Donley), the irrepressible goofball vaudevillian (Stromberg) and the deliberately inept, deadpan magician (Arnold).


Babcock's charts keep track of who's who, and where each actor is playing at any given time.

The show is in its eighth year in San Diego. An eight-city, 10-week tour of Ireland just wound up, and the 2005 schedule includes productions opening in Green Bay, Wis.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Oklahoma City.

"Other cities have requested us in 2005, but obviously, we can't do all of them," Babcock said with a touch of regret, though he's excited about negotiations to open productions late next year in Belgium and Holland.

"The plan right now is to rehearse the cast here at the Music Box and then to translate the show into Flemish," he says.

A former Guthrie Theater producer with a lot of experience in subscription-season marketing, Babcock has employed an innovative way of putting "Triple Espresso" on the road. In some cities, he piggybacks the show onto existing subscription seasons, where it is promoted in a lineup with more typical road-show productions like "Rent" or "Phantom of the Opera" — shows that have to be staged in big performing halls.

"Triple Espresso," however, is always performed in smaller venues, usually seating between 250 and 400 patrons. The host producers offer the show to thousands of season subscribers who fill the smaller performance space for weeks while also generating word-of-mouth promotion for new customers.

To date, "Triple Espresso" has played in 33 theaters — it ran for 68 weeks in Des Moines, for example — and it's had more than 6,800 performances. By the middle of next year, Babcock is confident that it will surpass the 7,645 performances that were given of "I Do! I Do!" during its nearly 23-year continuous run at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.

"Not bad for the little engine that could," he says.


Long runs are nothing new to theater, but the Twin Cities seem to have a particular affinity for them. Locals may recall "I Do! I Do!," which set theater records for longevity, or "Forever Plaid" and "Tony n' Tina's Wedding," which had four- and five-year runs, respectively, at theaters operated by local producer Sandy Hey.

"How to Talk Minnesotan" ran for five years in various versions after opening at the Plymouth Playhouse in 1997, then went on the road and even turned up in an abbreviated version performed in casino ballrooms. The creators even came up with a version called "The Best of How to Talk Minnesotan."

"The trick is to find the kind of a show that gets a lot of return business from people bringing in their friends and visiting guests," said Curt Wollin, who directed "How to Talk Minnesotan" and has made a career out of audience-friendly, long-run shows. One of his earliest, "Pump Boys and Dinettes," opened in 1985, ran for years at the Plymouth Playhouse and has since been resurrected by Wollin in 31 different productions.


But it ain't easy being funny. Stromberg, the grinning, goofy member of "Triple Espresso," still thinks about ways to fill the occasional pauses that he finds in a performance — maybe with a telling gesture, a funny reaction. The key to the show, he says, is belly laughs.

"People don't laugh like that very often, but that's what we get with this show," he said.

"I think people who have seen the show come back with friends because they want to see them laugh," added Donley.

"We're always getting better at doing this," Arnold said.

All three members of the trio had experience with stand-up solo work when they decided to collaborate on a show. Local director Bill Partlan, who saw the first church-hall performance, says it was a gag-packed, bit-filled vehicle from the start.

Partlan, then artistic director of the Cricket Theatre, added "Triple Espresso" as the capper to the 1996 season — which, as it turned out, was the final one for the Cricket before it folded. He has been directing the show and its many casts ever since.

It has become a conventional play, Partlan says, with a plot, some mild conflict and a resolution.

But "Triple Espresso" also has elements that seem to typify long-running shows. Babcock quickly lists them:

"It's a clean show — you can bring the kids and grandparents to it. It's a safe show — you can bring people from your company to see it and not worry about them being offended. And it's a show that you can see more than once, one that's not just for the theater crowd."

Sandy Hey, who brought "Beehive," "Forever Plaid" and "Tony n' Tina's Wedding" to her theater, calls long runs a "gift you have to work at."

"People think it's like falling off a log — just open the doors and the people keep coming — but it's not true," Hey said. "You're constantly reinventing all the time, saying 'Look at me, look at me.' "

But Donley says there's a magic that sustains eight years of "Triple Espresso" in Minneapolis.

"Sometimes during a performance I can't believe that we're doing this show, can't believe we're getting this response," he said. "It's much larger than us. It's a lot of fun to be in — in many ways, more fun to be in than to watch."

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Plays like 'Triple Espresso' and 'Beehive' keep buzzing for years
San Diego Union-Tribune
James Hebert
May 23, 2003

They look like plays. They last like plutonium.

These stage shows aren't coming soon to a theater near you. They've been there forever already – and they may never leave.

At the Theatre In Old Town, the '60s musical revue "Beehive" has been in residence more than two years. Before it, in the same space, the '50s songfest "Forever Plaid" played more than four years.

At the Horton Grand Theatre, meanwhile, you can catch the comedy that surpassed "Plaid" as the city's longest-running stage production.

Plays apply humor, song for long haul

"Triple Espresso," at five years and counting, has logged more than 2,000 performances at the downtown theater and has cloned itself in some 20 cities, even heading overseas.

As theater experiences, shows like "Beehive" and "Espresso" are a breed apart from the usual fare at the Old Globe, the La Jolla Playhouse and the Rep (although the Globe did stage the first local production of "Forever Plaid").

These productions tend to be short on story, long on nostalgia, suffused with humor and music. And instead of being staged as part of a season, they are the season – a season that ends only when sales dry up.

The differences are sharp enough that Jill K. Mesaros, the choreographer and costumer for "Beehive," admits wondering whether the small space where the show is staged ought to be called something else entirely.

"Sometimes I wish we didn't have the word 'theater' in the name," says Mesaros, also the company's producing director. "In some ways, that is an obstacle."

That sentiment gets at one key reason "Beehive" and similar shows here have been able to sustain seemingly endless runs: They draw theatergoers who don't think of themselves as theatergoers.

"A lot of times you see women bring their husbands in, kicking and screaming," Mesaros says. "They have a great time once they're here, but they don't know what to expect. They think they're going to be bored; they think they won't like it."

The same is true for "Triple Espresso," says Dennis Babcock, that show's Minneapolis-based executive producer.

"I think the theatergoing audience loves it, but I think this show (also) attracts a non-theatergoing audience in a positive way," he says.

"The non-theatergoer gets dragged there saying, 'A play? I'm going to see a play?'

"No – you're going to have a good time."

Stage lite
" Triple Espresso," which had its first production eight years ago in a Minnesota church basement, has since been staged in theaters across the nation.

On any given night, it might be playing in a half-dozen towns. It also has been staged in England and Ireland. This summer, a Danish-language version will debut in Copenhagen.

In Des Moines, Iowa – where "Triple Espresso" has passed the 200-performance mark – the city's first Starbucks coffee joint recently opened just downstairs from the theater, Babcock notes.

The proximity is fitting, and not just because the show is set in a coffeehouse. "Triple Espresso" is, in its way, the theatrical equivalent of Starbucks. It's a brand that's been standardized, duplicated and exported all over, with a strong emphasis on consistency and quality control.

"I think it's a valid comparison," Babcock acknowledges. "We certainly have tried real hard to keep the content the same.

"We have probably 24 actors who rotate in and out on a fairly consistent basis, and we're constantly putting people through 'Triple Espresso School.' As far as the look and feel of the piece, every show is directed by our director, every show is designed by all our designers.

"So if you see the show in San Diego, or you see the show in Minneapolis, or you see the show in Portland (Maine, where it debuts in July), you're going to see the same show."

If that approach makes "Triple Espresso" sound as homogenized as the milk in a Caramel Macchiato, Babcock says simply – and proudly – that the show is what it is.

"This is not great drama," he says. "This is just good entertainment. If you want (Chekhov's) 'Three Sisters' or something, go ahead. But that's not what this is."

Paula Kalustian, artistic director at the Theatre in Old Town, likens the consistency of her theater's high-energy musicals to that offered by another time-tested imprint: Disney.

"If you're going to Disneyland, you know exactly what kind of experience you're going to have," says Kalustian, who also directs the master's program in musical theater at SDSU.

"Often, when you go to the theater, you don't know. But when you come here, because of the kinds of vehicles we believe in and pick for our audiences, it's a guaranteed great time."

Open-ended runs that extend for years at a time present problems that other theaters generally don't have to deal with. Cast turnover is inevitable, which is why Kalustian and Co. spend a good part of their time running what they jokingly call the "University of Beehive" – their answer to Triple Espresso School.

"When we created this show 10 or 12 years ago, we created it around the six women we had," says Mesaros. "So when people come in as replacements, it's tricky."

Lisa Payton-Davis, one of several original cast members from the theater's maiden "Beehive" production in the early '90s, says keeping her focus after doing hundreds of shows can be a major challenge.

"Honestly, it is, sometimes – especially on the two-show days, when the first audience may not be as hot as you'd like them. Then the second audience comes in and you think, 'Oh, God, here we go again.' And then they're not (passive), and it just refreshes you."

Bill Arnold, who created "Triple Espresso" with friends and fellow performers Bob Stromberg and Michael Pearce Donley, insists that with more than 2,000 performances behind him, he still is learning his role.

"It's just too fun to stop," he says. "One of the privileges that many performers don't get to experience is that you get to discover something in the 839th show that you didn't realize in the 838th show.

"I think the three authors, we're sort of tortured perfectionists. We'll keep pushing the envelope, and hoping the audience appreciates it."

Breaking in
When Kalustian and Mesaros took over at the Old Town theater in the early '90s, they tried to do what other theaters in town do: Mount a season of plays.

"It damn near killed us," Kalustian says.

Deciding that the nonprofit-theater approach – with its board development and fund-raising – wasn't right for them, they built a business based on the model of New York commercial theater.

But while that model seems now to be a good fit for San Diego – at least on a small scale – the two say that wasn't the case then.

"This was not a city that had long runs," says Mesaros. "The Rep had done 'Six Women With Brain Death,' but it had opened and closed, opened and closed.

"We spent a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of creative energy, figuring out just how to crack this town."

Their key education came with "Forbidden Broadway," a popular spoof of the theater world that led the way to their mounting of the even more popular "Forever Plaid."

"I think now that we've done 'Plaid,' and 'Triple Espresso' has gone on, and 'Beehive,' people take it for granted that long runs work here in San Diego," says Kalustian. "But they didn't."

It helps that this is a tourist town. Both the Old Town theater and the "Triple Espresso" team estimate that up to 20 percent of their ticket-buyers are tourists.

But a bigger audience bloc for both consists of people who have seen the shows already, and have come back – possibly with family and friends in tow. It's one of the benefits of staging shows that substitute heavy doses of music and humor for a traditional dramatic arc.

"People want their friends to have the same experience they had," says Babcock. "It's the people who primarily do the selling for us. They want to share the joy."

In a town with a reputation for complacency, though, a perpetual play can create its own kind of curse.

"The beauty of the open-ended run is that people know it'll be there and they can come see it again," says Mesaros. "The negative is they go, 'Oh yeah, I'm going to go see that (sometime).'

"We still get calls for 'Forever Plaid.' It's been closed for almost three years. How many people have told me: 'Oh, yeah – I meant to go see that show.' "

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A highly caffeinated comedy that's a barrel of laughs

Reviews Gate

Timothy Ramsden

January 22, 2003

No wonder if this mid-90's good idea has become an early 21 century comedy phenomenon. Three performers of diverse stage appearance and personality, complement-if rarely compliment-each other in a crazy unique, rib-tickling, side-splitting, feature-deforming hoot-so good even the few merely adequate moments have been inserted to allow audiences a slight respite from hilarity.

After 25 years as the bum on the piano seat in the Triple Espresso cafeteria, Hugh Butternut celebrates with mum and dad, former teacher and partner (if you don't fancy hitting the spotlight in these roles keep off the front rows). Then there are his old stage partners, Bob Stromberg's muster-sized ever-beaming Bobby and Bill Arnold's Buzz, an expressionless pile of resentment who'd clearly rather be any place else than where he is.

As they travel through the triumphs and embarrassments (well, just embarrassments really) of their days and nights together, the speed and accomplishment of the trio almost disguises that the circumstantial storyline's there to let each performer do their specialty turn.

For Donley, this is music, parodying the ingratiating lounge-pianist's manner. For Stromberg, it's physical dexterity. The Grand Canyon-smile's just wearing thin when he veers into one of the show's highlights, his head seeming to take on a separate physical existence-first jutting from side to side then setting firm, stubbornly sticking motionless in mid-air as his whole body gyrates around it-fine preparation for his (slightly over-extended) gorilla act.

But the main threat to physical stability, mental sanity and the most muscles within reach of the mouth, comes with Arnold's eruption from downbeat gloom-merchant into a magic act of stupefying inanity. Slowly the tricks become convincing, only to be subverted by giveaway follow-ups. You have to feel, through, for the poor audience member guided towards the card Arnold wants him to select by means of a blowtorch.

And you have to admire Stromberg's shadow-play (true vaudeville novelty act). And the climactic-so to speak-nude dance the trio treat us to:the most fun you can imagine with their clothes on.

But see for yourself. And don't wait:cities worldwide are queuing up for these guys.

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Trio serves potful of laughs
Des Moines Register
Jody Crossman
November 1, 2002

It was a caffeine high all around Wednesday night as the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines opened "Triple Espresso" at the Temple for Performing Arts.

The show marks the first performance the Civic Center has undertaken away from the hall, and the first it has independently produced.

Expectations are high for this show, which is slated to run through Jan. 5. If Wednesday's performance is any indication, Des Moines audiences will have the chance to see the show well beyond the first of the year.
"Triple Espresso" introduces audiences to Hugh Butternut, a "70s-style lounge singer who has taken to performing his one-man piano show for the caffeinated masses at the Triple Espresso Coffeehouse.

Butternut, one-third of a trio formerly known as Maxwell, Butternut & Bean, has organized a reunion of the threesome. The group's one TV broadcast performance ended in complete disaster 25 years ago.

From there, it's simple chaos. The audience discovers, through clever flashbacks, lots of lowbrow humor and scads of audience participation, what ultimately put an end to the trio's comedic dreams.
"Triple Espresso" boasts three performers who prove that it takes great talent to appear as if you have no talent at all.

Robert O. Berdahl plays the role of the saucy lounge lizard, Hugh Butternut. Whether singing or tickling the ivories, Berdahl gives one heck of a good Barry Manilow impression in this role. His performance infuses great energy into the show.

And then there's Bobby Bean, played by John Bush. Nowhere have I watched such a downright goofy performance and wanted more. Bush demonstrates a comedic versatility here, utilizing the audience in a fun little sing-along in the first act and a display of shadow puppets in the second. Both vignettes kept audiences howling with laughter.

Last, but hardly least, was Patrick Albanese as the seriously deadpan Buzz Maxwell, a less-than-convincing magician. His card tricks and sleight-of-hand magic are strangely engaging despite their staged obviousness.

A colorful but intimate set, great sound and lighting all lend to the very positive theater-going experience.

This show has proven to be a success in cities such as Minneapolis, where it has shown for more than six years. It's no surprise, really. The show's formula really works.

See "Triple Espresso" for the laughs alone. This zany, goofy little comedy will grab you from the beginning and hardly let go.

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Triple Espresso still buzzing six years later
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Graydon Royce
Oct 10, 2001

Talk about your caffeine buzz. Three guys sat down over coffee almost seven years ago and they're still on a spree that's taken over their lives. What's more, Michael Pearce Donley, Bob Stromberg and Bill Arnold have no intention of coming down from this high.
"Triple Espresso," the phenomenal comedy that these three men brewed in January 1995, just entered its sixth season at the Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis. Last week, the three creators flew off to Milwaukee to open a six-week run. In January, they hope to crack into Portland, Ore. And sometime early in the new year, "Triple Espresso" will become the longest continuing show in San Diego theater history -- 53 months.

The show has jagged from Florida to New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and Wisconsin. In "Triple Espresso" world headquarters right across Nicollet Avenue from the Music Box, a map shows what markets are targeted next. A dryboard keeps track of the actors who are either playing in the current productions, or training to enter the casts. A storage room is stacked with T-shirts, refrigerator magnets, coffee mugs, bottled water (heresy!), pens and hats. "Triple Espresso" has become a corporation employing 28 people and 20 actors, with sales of $3.7 million a year.

"It has the strongest word-of-mouth audience that I've ever witnessed," said executive producer Dennis Babcock, who got hooked on "Triple Espresso" when he stopped by for a taste in 1997. An independent theater producer, he soon found his time consumed by this project and moved his office out of his home basement and into the storefront on Nicollet.

"It's been an incredible blessing to all of us," said Babcock.

That sentiment is stirred often during conversations with the principals of this unlikely enterprise. When asked how aggressively the company is trying to move into new markets, Stromberg details a calculated methodology and concludes by saying "We're trying to be careful with this blessing."

Dream comes true

It was Stromberg's idea all those years ago to get this show percolating. He'd admired the work of Arnold and Pearce Donley and wondered if the three of them could put together "the funniest show out there," he said.

They gathered in Pearce Donley's basement and started to build. Stromberg brought experience as a mime, a guitarist and a conference entertainer to the table. Arnold was a stand-up comedian and magician, while Pearce Donley was a serious musician -- working lounges, doing solo keyboard tours, singing. They tinkered with bits and pieces, eventually nailing down about 70 minutes of material. Now, all they needed was an audience.

On a Sunday evening, the three coffee beans brought their act to Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina for a family entertainment night. About 600 watched, and it went so well that a month later, they played a similar event at Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie. That's when serendipity -- which seems to play a part in all great success stories -- dipped down in the person of Bill Partlan, the Cricket Theatre's artistic director at the time.

Partlan saw the show at Wooddale and brought it to the Cricket for eight weeks. Ironically, it was the highest-grossing show in the history of the Cricket, which closed shortly after the run.

Emboldened by this success, Stromberg, Pearce Donley and Arnold met with Babcock and asked how they could keep the coffee hot. Two investors pitched in $150,000 to build a production, and the little company took off. Of course, the Cricket was defunct so the Music Box Theatre was available. In addition, the show was booked in several other cities. By the second year, the initial investors had been bought out. After four years, the box office had totaled $13 million. Attendance has grown from 60,000 in 1997 to 135,000 last year. In the Twin Cities alone, about 67,000 a year stop by for a cuppa show -- which makes "Triple Espresso" one of the top-attended theaters in town.

In the long term, Babcock talks about taking the show international, targeting metropolitan markets of 2 million or more and using existing theater companies that could slot "Triple Espresso" into their seasons with the possibility of extensions. That gives the show the benefit of a company's subscription audience.

There are some wrinkles on the horizon, though. Pearce Donley has young children who will be entering school in the next few years.

"They've always traveled with me," he said, explaining that whenever "Triple Espresso" opens in a new city, the original cast establishes the show for six to eight weeks. But once the kids are in school, they won't be able to come along, and Pearce Donley doesn't want to be away from them for that long.

The worst outcome, however, is that the original cast would perform only in Minneapolis.

What's so magic?

It was the day after "Triple Espresso" reopened for the fall season in the Music Box when Arnold, Stromberg and Pearce Donley sat down with a visitor. The rapport built over 1,800 shows together is obvious. So is the bond that has developed among three men who really have remade their lives. They joke about Stromberg missing a few lines the previous night.

"We lost Bob a few times last night," said Pearce Donley.

Stromberg smiles sheepishly and admits that even though you'd think the show is down pat in his head, a month of vacation had him drifting.

"But we're good at fishing each other out," said Arnold.

There is a sweetness to the laughter, appreciative and thankful.

"We've poured our heart and soul into this," said Arnold.

The keys to this success story are simple to pin down. The show has a thin but clever story line about three performers reunited after a faux bitter breakup. They recount their careers over two-plus hours, but really, the plot is an excuse for these three performers strut their stuff.

"Repeat business is the strongest I've ever seen," said Babcock, who spent 17 years at the Guthrie Theater, including two as managing director. "People see it 15 to 20 times. It's clean, it plays to all ages. My daughter, who's 6, got it. My dad is 80 and he loves it. We really believe all we need to do is get people in to see the show."

When they're not on stage, the creators are still working on the show, trying to increase the number of laughs-per-minute, and fine-tuning so that little laughs set up moderate laughs that set up big laughs.

"It's the ecosystem of laughs," said Arnold.

They also train other actors to work the show when they are absent. For example, with Stromberg, Pearce Donley and Arnold opening the show in Milwaukee, Robert O. Berdahl, Patrick Albanese and John Bush are keeping the Minneapolis show hot. Pearce Donley noted that he'd spent four hours recently working with a replacement on one 10-minute section. It has to be right.

You might think a logical step for such a successful show would be New York, but Stromberg said a few producers who saw the show early counseled against taking it there.

"They told us, 'You've got such a good thing here. Why go to New York and risk all that?'"

No, this is too precious. All three performers seem humbled by their success and by the ability of the show to connect with audiences.

"As people are leaving, they tell us incredible stories," said Arnold. "One said, 'This was the first time I've seen my father laugh in 21 years.'"

Given "Triple Espresso's" record, it may be around in 21 years to get another laugh.

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Perc Collators:

Triple Espresso' entertainers skillfully blend their diverse talents
Los Angeles Times
Nancy Churnin

July 3, 1997

Coronado--Some performers wait for good material to come to them. Others create their own. And then there are Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg, who don't so much write material as find a fabulous way of stringing together their own very individual acts.

The result? A triple jolt of inspired craziness with "Triple Espresso," extended through July 27 at Lamb's Players Theatre.

The gimmick that pulls these three together is that Hugh Butternut (Donley), celebrating 20 years of lounge lizardom at the Triple Espresso cafe (where "Close to You" becomes "Close to Hugh"), is visited by the members of his former trio, Buzz Maxwell (Arnold) and Bobby Bean (Bob Stromberg). He invites them up on stage, naturally, ant this gives Maxwell, Butternut and Bean, as they were once known, the excuse to reminisce and do highlights and lowlights from their individual and collective acts over the years.

"Triple Espresso" was a hit last year in Minneapolis, where it originated. This West Coast premiere is under the same director, William Partlan, and crackles with infectious fun that should prove irresistible anywhere. Except maybe in Zaire, where the show sets on skit that… well, we won't spoil the joke.

Donley is a terrific pianist, with the kind of mellifluous voice that makes you enjoy the parodies you know you're supposed to groan at. He wrote the amusing original music that alternates with his takeoffs on cheesy standards.

Donley also shows off his keyboard skills in one segment in which Stromberg--an accomplished mime--tries to get the attention of judge Roddy McDowell by doing his "Planet of the Apes" impression. You won't find a more convincing ape imitation--sans costume--in the San Diego Zoo.

Arnold, a crackerjack magician who proves himself equally adept at really bad magic jokes, has a dour, deadpan delivery that keeps the show's over-the-top humor in perfect balance.

Nayna Ramey's versatile, colorful, coffee-cup-dominated set establishes a bright tone that, with Michael Klaers' lighting, accommodates all the swift changes in time and place, from the coffee shop to a college campus, Zaire and a hilarious disaster on the "Mike Douglas Show".

But what "Triple Espresso" is really about is the triple threat of Arnold, Donley and Stromberg. As good as they might be individually, they are even funnier together, playing off each other and interacting with the audience.

They have so taken on the persona of the self-effacing flops who try harder that there they are, during intermission, playing their instruments just inside the open door of the restroom And they they are again at the end of the evening, waving goodbye to people at the doors of the theater.

The word is that if you don't like the show, they promise to apologize to you personally. So far, it hasn't been necessary.

Charged-up comedy has universal appeal
San Diego Union-Tribune
Don Freeman
June 10, 1997

Let me put it this way: "Triple Espresso," now gracing the boards at the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre [now called "Horton Grand Theatre"], ranks with the most entertaining shows I have ever seen on any stage. I am not exaggerating here.

And, you must believe me, I have seen a few shows in my time. And you must also accept my assertion that, in critical terms, in witnessing a performance, I am not exactly a pushover.

Measured on all counts, "Triple Espresso" is a gem, a prize, a knockout, a truly funny and joyous production that emerges as that conspicuous rarity: a grand entertainment for all ages.

And I think it holds significance, this particular kind of universality, this disregard for the years that separate the generations.

History tells us that many of our greatest comedy performers have been blessed with the special appeal that at once delights the adults and the small fry. The giants have always done this.

I am thinking of Will Rogers, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Edgar Bergen, Burns and Allen, Lucy and Desi, Victor Borge, Steve Allen, Bill Crosby, Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason, Bob Newhart. I am also thinking of Jim Henson and the enduring legacy of his Muppets.

Sometimes but not always
There is this notion that if a show bestirs laughter from the kids, then it just might be lacking in sophistication, and the adults would be wise to take a pass.

Sometimes but not always. And certainly this does not hold in regard to "Triple Espresso," which came out of Minneapolis (a great city that is, I am told, second only to New York in the number of its theaters) and then triumphed earlier this year in Coronado at the Lamb's Players' Theater.

Directed by William Partlan and designed by Nayna Ramsey, "Triple Espresso" was written by Michael Pearce Donley, bob Stromberg and Bill Arnold, and these three also comprise the cast. As the storyline goes, they have formed a comedy trio. The lads are booked for a gig on Cable Zaire, they have another gig at a Kiwanis luncheon, a turn of the "Wild Bill Hickock Daze" in North Platte, Neb., and a crucial guest shot on the old "Mike Douglas Show." And always they miss the cut.

But in actuality, they are, all three, loaded with comic gifts and delicious timing, and I am issuing a gilt-edge guarantee here: They will make you laugh out loud. Their talents blend. Donley plays terrific piano and sings. Stromberg does first-rate mime, Arnold performs crackerjack magic.

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Shamelessly corny, 'Espresso' is funny
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Carolyn Petrie
April 4, 1997

From its title, you might think that the manic energy behind "Triple Espresso" owes itself to designer coffee. In spite of the '90s name, however, the hyperwackiness that ensues throughout this three-man variety show has its roots in old-fashioned, crowd-pleasin' vaudeville. For the next two months, the Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis will be transformed almost nightly into the Triple Espresso Cafe, where cheesy, pearly-toothed singer Hugh Butternut (Michael Pearce Donley) perpetually celebrates his 20th anniversary on the coffee shop's stage.

Like any lounge lizard worth his sequins, Hugh bases his repertoire around old '70s nuggets. His stage persona, so sincerely dorky that one can't help but laugh along, lies somewhere between Elton John and Up With People.

After a super peppy opening that involves audience banter, Hugh notices his two old show-biz partners in the crowd. Buzz Maxwell and Bobby Bean (Bill Arnold and Bob Stromberg), still smarting from the trio's breakup years ago, eventually join Hugh onstage and recount the silly history of their glory days in the limelight.

Of course, the brightest limelight that Maxwell, Butternut and Bean ever shared may have been a 60-watt bulb in the basement of a Kiwanis Club in 1974, but no matter. The three still operate under the illusion that they coulda, shoulda, woulda hit the big time.

"Triple Espresso" owes its charm largely to the performers' ease in conveying shameless corniness. The show's comic material, written by its three performers and shaped by director William Partlan, spreads the laughter out between each of the trio's specialties.

Highlights include Stromberg's jovial physical comedy and Arnold's deadpan magic act (in which he sheepishly asks the audience, "Could you all close your eyes for a minute, please?"). Donley shines as the lead singer in the group's ridiculous attempt to hit it big in Africa, belting out a medley of dreadful old pop (including "Having My Baby" and the theme from "Rocky") to an ill-conceived tribal beat.

This three-man variety show set in a coffee shop gets its manic energy from old-fashioned, crowd-pleasin' vaudeville. Often laugh-out-loud funny, the material is wholesome enough to appeal across generations.

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