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Articles & Reviews


Pioneer Press
November 28, 2004   "Triple Espresso has brewed big money for small venues"
Minneapolis Star Tribune
June 4, 2003   '"'Triple Espresso' stays hot after 7 years"
October 10, 2001   "Triple Espresso still buzzing six years later"
April 4, 1997   "Shamelessly corny, 'Espresso' is funny"
April 1996   "Cricket's Parting Shot is Funny, Spirited Triple Dose of Talent, Comedy"
UP! Magazine    
September 2003   Riding that Caffeine High
Minnesota Christian Chronical
May 1, 2003   "'Triple Espresso' turns seven"
The Rake
June 2003   Review
City Pages
January 23, 2002   "City Pages Joins the Party - Six Years Later - Despite Itself!"

Triple Espresso has brewed big money for small venues

Pioneer Press
Nov. 28, 2004
David Hawley

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."

'"'Triple Espresso' stays hot after 7 years"

Minneapolis Star Tribune
June 4, 2003
Graydon Royce

The coffee's still hot and it tastes fresh.

"Triple Espresso: A Highly Caffeinated Comedy" last month celebrated its seventh year at the Music Box Theatre in Minneapolis. In that time, the little three-man comedy has grown to become an international hit with productions from California to Maine, from Ontario to London.

Soon to appear in Denmark in its first non-English version, "Triple Espresso" shows no signs of slowing down -- at the box office or artistically, as a return visit to the Music Box demonstrated last weekend.

Michael Pearce Donley, Bob Stromberg and Bill Arnold have lost none of their zeal for the show they wrote together, yet one senses a professional gloss and tight pacing that results from years of repetition. That is not easy to pull off, and it testifies to their stage concentration and sincerity.

More cabaret than play, this confection proposes that Hugh Butternut (Donley) is celebrating his 25th anniversary as lounge lizard at the Triple Espresso coffeehouse. He has invited Bobby Bean (Stromberg) and Buzz Maxwell (Arnold), his former mates in a trio that broke up after a disastrous performance on "The Mike Douglas Show," to help mark the occasion. Back they go, through their shared history, unearthing painful and unresolved conflicts -- the essence of comedy.

"Triple Espresso" gives each man several occasions to fly solo with his particular talent. Stromberg uses his loose and limber body with great skill, but watching him reminded me that physical comedy starts inside. Stromberg's spirit animates his work with a precision born of method, not just technique.

Arnold -- the droll, dry one -- combines Bob Newhart's taciturn visage with a knack for magic. He spends his first spotlight mangling a series of illusions, sort of like the clumsy uncle who thinks he's so cool as he screws up a card trick. His second spot is the real deal, an amazing run through some fine legerdemain.

Donley drives the show musically, plays the straight man to Stromberg's fop and pitches in with a few spot-on improvisations at the piano.

The bits are hilarious and executed beautifully, but perhaps more important, the humor seems to flow organically from character. In the course of two hours, you get to know Hugh, Bobby and Buzz, see the differences in their personalities and enjoy who they are. That helps "Triple Espresso" transfer its magic to other casts, allowing other actors to build within a real character and react to situations and relationships.

Bill Partlan directed the original version of this show and still provides an outside pair of eyes to help shape and guide the actors. It's working, for there is no sleep in the coffeehouse.

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Triple Espresso still buzzing six years later

Minneapolis Star Tribune
Oct 10, 2001
Graydon Royce

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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Shamelessly corny, 'Espresso' is funny

Minneapolis Star Tribune
April 4, 1997
Carolyn Petrie

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 supperpeppy 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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Cricket's Parting Shot is Funny, Spirited Triple Dose of Talent, Comedy

Minneapolis Star Tribune
April, 1996
Peter Vaughan

If "Triple Espresso" is the Cricket Theatre's last shot, then it's pleasant to report that the parting volley is funny, spirited and something that the whole family will enjoy.

"Triple Espresso," playing at the Cricket's former home in the Music Box Theatre, is more an extended cabaret act than it is a play. It features the diverse but considerable talents of musician-comedian Michael Pearce Donley, deadpan magician Bill Arnold and singer-comic-mime Bob Stromberg.

For the better part of two hours, these entertainers -- often involving the audience in the fun -- display their individual and combined talents in a loose story about the reunion of Maxwell, Butternut and Bean, a not very talented or lucky trio of cabaret performers (not unlike themselves).

Much of the abundant humor comes from the rather sad personality each of the men adopts in bringing this story to life and laughter.

Donley is an ambitious singer with grand plans but not much sense, as evidenced by his accepting a bank-balance-busting gig on Zaire Cable TV. Arnold is reclusive and angry, still steaming over the disaster that befell the trio 20 years earlier when they blew their big chance on "The Mike Douglas Show." Stromberg is an artist whose career is steeped in doubt and good intention. He reached his zenith in the '70s leading hootenannies on college campuses.

Hiding behind these meek, self-deprecatory exteriors, the men revisit their failures, bringing gales of laughter for their ineptness and inexperience. Arnold's initial magic show, in which he inadvertently eliminates much of the mystery from his art, is wonderful stuff, as is Stromberg's emergence from obscurity as a mime.

But behind Arnold's fluffs, Donley's flat notes and pathetic cabaret singing, and Stromberg's feeble acoustic guitar-playing is plenty of talent to make the ineptness credible.

It takes skill to be a convincing failure, and these three have it in spades. When he isn't fooling around, Arnold performs a few familiar tricks with a newspaper, cups and bits of rope that will leave you scratching your head.Donley is a breezy piano player with a winning comic touch and the ability to move effectively into a number of pop singing styles. Stromberg's physical gifts are impressive -- particularly as a man whose body seems to move independently from his head.

When it's time to leave the individual bits and join in song or dance, the three do it very well. Their recreation of a Donley dream in which he seeks to outdo his partners is a delightfully funny slow-motion battle set to the theme from "Chariots of Fire."

Donley, Arnold and Stromberg have been performing "Triple Espresso" to great acclaim at conventions and business meetings for a couple of years. This is their first gig in a theatre equipped with sophisticated lighting and a full set. They look very comfortable, and could be serving up "Triple Espresso" in similar theatres for some time to come.

What's also nice to note is that the trio gets its laughs without resorting to wounding personal barbs, scatology or off-color jokes. There are no expletives to be deleted in this show.

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"'Triple Espresso' turns seven"

Minnesota Christian Chronicle
May 1, 2003
Bryan Malley

The "highly caffeinated comedy" show Triple Espresso celebrated its seventh birthday during the month of April. Minnesota's own Michael Pearce Donley, Bob Stromberg and Bill Arnold wrote the show in Donley's basement and are the original performers.

All three original cast members are back on stage at the Music Box Theatre performing the show through the end of May. "We love to perform here in town. It's our home and the Music Box, well, that's our theatre," said Stromberg.

Triple Espresso is the story of three characters - a musician, magician and comic - who are celebrating the 25-year anniversary of their "big break." The original cast first performed the show at the Cricket Theatre in April 1996, and it quickly became the highest grossing show in the theater's history.

The comedy was moved to the Music Box Theatre in the spring of 1997, where it has been performed ever since. Soon after the move, the creators of the show developed a dream of having the show play simultaneously across the country and began training other actors to perform the three lead roles.

"The show has improved over the last seven years," said Stromberg. "We have added or even replaced parts of the show that work much better. We can accomplish in 40 seconds what we used to do in three minutes."

"It's just gotten tighter. We've tried to take away the holes in the show," said Donley. "We are constantly working on ways to keep the laughs moving and the dead spaces out."

Over the past seven years, Triple Espresso has entertained over 900,000 people in 16 cities and on two continents. Productions of the show are running simultaneously in Minneapolis, San Diego and Des Moines. The show has also played in Chicago, Seattle, Milwaukee, Sarasota, Portland, and other regional theaters. The cast of the show performed to continually sold-out audiences in Dublin, Ireland, and just returned home from a nine-week run in London's exclusive West End theater district. Triple Espresso has grossed over $8 million locally and $22 million internationally.

"To think that when we wrote this show in Mike Donley's basement, that it would open in the West End of London is an unbelievable thing," said Stromberg.

The show's appeal and success hinge on presenting a clean and funny show, according to Stromberg. "I've often been disappointed with American comedy because I'll laugh five or six times during a movie and think, 'I really had a good laugh there.' When you come to Triple Espresso, you actually see people wiping the tears off their faces from laughter," he said. "Providing people with an experience they can't get elsewhere, that's quite a gratifying experience."

"In this day and age people need a reason to laugh, and it really does the heart good to laugh like that," said Donley. "It's always great to be home, and the audiences here are so lively and ready to go with it from moment one."

The Triple Espresso Company is hoping to open shows full-time in Dublin, Toronto, Sweden, Denmark and Germany.

"We pray that the show would be a blessing every single night," said Stromberg. "We really feel that God has answered those prayers and allowed that to happen almost every night."

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The Rake
June, 2003

Seven years, sixteen cities, and up to a million theatergoers later, Triple Espresso's caffeine high refuses to wear off. This three-man vaudevillian cabaret act, in fact, is among the most successful shows our town's ever produced, still getting sellout crowds night after night for the laugh-a-minute antics of the has-been trio Maxwell, Butternut, and Bean. What's the big deal? Simply put, it really is that funny. Oh, sure, it's theatrical comfort food, occasionally naughty but never crossing the line into grandma-shocking. But if it doesn't ask you to think, it does ask you to laugh—and you will laugh. The plot is a piffle, really, a mere skeleton for the complementing talents of Espresso's three originators—the wry, Newhartesque Bill Arnold and his mock-incompetent magician's tricks, Michael Pearce Donley's smarmy lounge-lizard, and the goofy dumb-guy antics of Bob Stromberg, whose inspired gorilla imitation is one of the show's highlights. Next on the Espresso agenda is a full-scale European invasion, starting with Hamlet's turf—three Danish actors just finished rehearsing here in Minneapolis and are set to open the first-ever foreign-language version of the show later this summer in Copenhagen. Music Box, 1407 Nicollet Ave., 612-874-1100, tripleespresso.com

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"City Pages Joins the Party - Six Years Later - Despite Itself!"

City Pages
January 23, 2002
by Max Sparber

I should begin by pointing out that the closing date listed above is merely a fiction of convenience: June 30 is the date when the Music Box claims the show closes, and we are repeating the claim here, despite our full knowledge that, should some apocalyptic disaster befall the earth, all that would remain would be cockroaches, gulls, and Triple Espresso. Bill Arnold, Michael Pearce Donley and Bob Stromberg's comedy about three failed entertainers has been going strong, in one incarnation or another, since 1995, and it shows no sign of letting up.

Indeed, there is something peculiar and fascinating about the economics of its enduring popularity. After all, the luxurious Music Box Theatre is one of the priciest rentals in town, costing just over three large bills per weekend at last report. Even if we assume that Triple Espresso has lowered its rental price by leasing the venue until the bitter end of time itself, there is still the question of how they manage to nearly sell out seven shows a week—with a seven-year-old show.

The answer, of course, lies in the creators' oft-repeated claim that they set out to write "the funniest show in America." While Triple Espresso is not that, precisely, it is the sort of rambunctious, knockabout comedy that seems designed to separate the cognoscenti, who sneer at this sort of thing, from the booboisie—who are then further separated from their money, again and again, it seems.

And chic though it may be to sneer, I will throw my hat in with the booboisie this time, as Triple Espresso is about as much fun as can be had in a theatre in the Twin Cities.

There is no plot to speak of; the show consists instead of howlingly bad musical numbers, magic tricks, and hand-shadow puppetry. But if you don't laugh, loudly, about four times every minute while watching this show, it's time to schedule that CAT scan. If this is where Twin Citians want to spent their theatrical dollar, well, who can blame them?

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