‘The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe’: Musical from last days of vaudeville is nothing but entertaining in Underscore’s hands

Production: Understudy Theatre, Summer 2019
Reviewer/Publication: Kerry Reid, Chicago Tribune
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Underscore Theatre Company won a bushelful of raves for their original folk musical “Haymarket” last year. Their current offering moves away from social justice and labor unrest — or does it? In “The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe,” the beleaguered workers are a pair of down-on-their-luck vaudeville comedians trying to break into “the moving flickers on the big screen.” But as any number of plays and movies have taught us, all that glitters isn’t gold in them thar Hollywood Hills.

Featuring a book by Ben Auxier, Brian Huther and Seth Macchi, with music and lyrics by Auxier and Huther, this show is a fast-moving pastiche/homage that glancingly references everything from George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s “Once in a Lifetime” to “Singin’ in the Rain” to “Gypsy,” yet still manages to skillfully work in some sly anachronisms. Upon hearing that smoldering speakeasy chanteuse Evelyn Rose (Natalie Rae) makes 20 bucks a night, Kyle Ryan’s Lefty innocently asks her, “Is that a lot of money in today’s dollars?”

The pacing in Rusty Sneary’s direction has the rat-a-tat rhythm of a tommy gun, and if the comedic approach gets scattershot from time to time, there are so many direct hits (and truly funny sight gags) that the ones you miss don’t matter. (Sneary and choreographer Jenna Schoppe both have figured out how to use the small stage at Underscore’s new Uptown black-box studio to great advantage, without overpowering the room or making us worry that the performers are about to crash into each other unintentionally.)

If it’s depth you’re after, this isn’t really your show. But it takes a lot of skill to make silly bits stick the landing over two acts, and Sneary’s cast tears through quick changes in period costumes and wigs (a tip of the cloche hat to designers Christina Leinicke and Rachel Elise Johnson, respectively) with gusto and palpable enjoyment. Pianist/sole musician Annabelle Revak is the tuneful pace car here, filling the scene changes as if she’s filling in at a nickelodeon. (Music director Ryan McCall provides the arrangements.)

There are also moments that slow down enough for us to see the pathos behind the path to stardom. Elisabeth Del Toro as Lolo Carmichael, the smart blonde screen siren (and longtime fan of Lefty and Crabbe), who has been forced to play shallow roles, sings “Smile Your Way Through,” noting that “It takes effort to be effortless, it’s work to play pretend.” When the lights drop down to a stark spot on her grimacing grin, it’s reminiscent of Sally Bowles in “Cabaret.” Only in Lolo’s case, her stardom means everyone — especially the doddering drunk studio head (Stephanie Boyd) and her idiotic pseudo-fiancé and director, Mac Lloyd (Auxier) — gets to tell her what to do, in her career and her personal life. It is of course the relationship between the title characters that matters the most, and the main thrust of the narrative is that their dreams of film stardom can only be bought at the cost of that friendship, as nobody will cast them together. Ryan’s Lefty, who is the plump counterpart to Shea Pender’s slim Crabbe (a la Laurel and Hardy), gets stuck in a series of films known collectively as “Fatty Falls Down” — which was how the late Chris Farley described his comic style. Lefty doesn’t sink into the same dark paths as Farley (this is a comedy, not a cautionary tale), but we see glimpses of how being reduced to his body type damages his self-esteem, most notably in “Eat Your Heart Out.”

Meanwhile, Pender’s Crabbe is stripped of his funny altogether and shoehorned into chiseled-leading-man roles in melodramas. The agent who’s engineered both their left-turn movie careers, E.G. Swellington (Mike Ott, who breaks the speed barrier among the fast-talking collection of eccentrics) of course only wants to make dough off his proteges. Meantime, Huther’s Gene, their hangdog-but-loyal manager who literally lives in their trunk at one point, tries to keep the faith burning for them.

There are some lost opportunities along the way here — we never get a sense of what Lefty and Crabbe did best in vaudeville and how their act reflected their personas, and despite the title, there aren’t that many ballads in the score, which tends to stick to up-tempo numbers. The roles of both Lolo and Evelyn could be enhanced (the latter in particular, since she’s figured out how to have a solid career without going into pictures). But as noted in the show, in tough times, just having a laugh and forgetting about the world can be a treat. “The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe” is about as goodhearted and surehanded a musical comedy as you’ll find — a show that knows what it’s trying to do and delivers on the nose in its own goofy terms.

3.5 Stars

Underscore Theatre Company Presents THE BALLAD OF LEFTY & CRABBE Review - Lots of Bits

Production: Understudy Theatre, Summer 2019
Reviewer/Publication: Amy Muncie, Picture This Post
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The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe doesn’t just begin—it explodes. Two Vaudevillian comics —Lefty (Kyle Ryan) and Crabbe (Shea Pender) — are cranky when they find each other in what they each think is his own dressing room. Then, in the blink of the speeding metronome that paces this musical, they are both on stage in the first of many Who’s On First? moments.

For the next two hours Groucho’s ghost keeps the punch line drum rolls coming as these two Vaudevillians become fast friends and newbies in Tinsel Town.  Meanwhile, the rest of this uber-talented cast – only eight in number but feeling more like a theatrical Army Division — heaps on the song, dance and action, switching characters faster than the speed of an action video game.

This story by cast members Ben Auxier and Brian Huther (also with Seth Macchi on Book) is full of bits, but nary a bit player.  Lefty & Crabbe might be the headliners but it’s their fellow cast members that are the anti-void, from their quirky manager who sleeps in a trunk (Brian Huther), to their physical trainer (Reagan Pender,  in on of many roles allowing him to flex his accent put-on muscles), to the Hollywood mogul lush who hires them (Stephanie Boyd), and more.  This writer imagines that to portray the swarmy fast-talking Hollywood agent E.G. Swellington, actor Mike Ott did a séance to summon W.S. Gilbert’s ghost to teach him how make the scripts bon mots do their ever silvery speed from his tongue.

For those of us lucky enough (read: old enough) to have sat at the knee of elders who came of age in Vaudevillian times, know that you too will likely adore the way playwrights/composers Auxier and Huther have somehow bypassed the slow demise of verbal dexterity that was once commonplace for any high school graduate. It’s not only language-based shticks-- though that’s the main juice--but also a lot of physical slapstick too. (Spoiler Alert!) For this writer, watching the cast take a bouncing train ride together is in itself a treasured moment for the memory banks.

Underscore Theatre Picks Another Jewel-in-the-Rough Musical Masterpiece

The music is catchy, in this writer’s view, if not especially transporting.  But it is the glue that allows this cast to “put on a show”, to paraphrase a recurring lyric. Though we get breathers here and there from croons so ably delivered (especially Natalie Rae as speakeasy singer Evelyn Rose and Elisabeth Del Toro as Lolo Carmichael) this reviewer craved a chaser of a few more tension breaks a la Harpo just silently smiling and giving non-verbal horn toots.

This is a Day at the Racesstyle marathon of fun.  The cast seems to be having a ball—and you feel it.  If you just can’t get enough of those oldie comedy flicks born more of Vaudeville stages than silver screen, you are well-advised to change your schedule to catch this show.  And if you just want a couple of hours of fun escapism, this is a good pick too.

The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe tells a sad tale of the end of vaudeville

Production: The Understudy Theatre, Summer 2019
Review/Publication: Max Maller / Chicago Reader
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The heyday of vaudeville is over and done with 15 minutes into this delightful new musical from Underscore Theatre Company, with book and lyrics by Brian Huther, Ben Auxier, and Seth Macchi and music by Huther and Auxier. Its heroes are two relics of the old school with a duo act to beat the band and nowhere to perform it, what with music halls shuttering and Hollywood's first flowering guzzling the entertainment market share. Lefty is played by Kyle Ryan, one of the best sad clowns I have ever seen. The deeper pain he's in, the wider he smiles. His partner Crabbe is played by Shea Pender. Their close vocal harmony in the show's duets lends added sweetness to the tender interaction of these outsize personalities.

Bolstering the central duo is a lively ensemble of minor characters. Tweed hats and flapper wigs abound. Footlights, check. The patter between songs comes fast and joke-heavy, especially when Mike Ott, who plays the conniving film agent in the boys' corner, does his auctioneer's bark at a million miles per hour.

It's a rip-roaring time, but the ground note of melancholy never fades away. Elisabeth Del Toro plays a starlet named Lolo Carmichael who's engaged to an asinine producer. Lolo, like Lefty, has melancholy threaded through her character, but she understands, and becomes Lefty's teacher in understanding that laughter doesn't have to be about being happy. It can work as a disguise. You don't even have to mean it when you smile, it turns out. But there happens to be no other way to stay alive in a world that's gone haywire overnight.

The only thing wrong with Underscore’s hilarious ‘Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe’ is its inevitable ending

Production: The Understudy Theatre, Summer 2019
Reviewer/publication: Patrick O’Brien, Chicagoland Musical Theatre
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There’s a glaring issue with Underscore’s new comedy musical The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe, and it occurs right at the end: it ends.

An even more grim realization follows: eventually, the production must close.

Contradicting thoughts, zinging back and forth in a vaudevillian badinage: Practical Brain knows the musical must eventually move on to conquer bigger houses, as it deserves, while Greedy Brain wants to put it all in your pocket and take it home for keepsies. And why not? The little toy theater they’ve set up at the Understudy on Clark make that seem plausible.

Penned by visiting Missourians Ben Auxier, Brian Huther and Seth Macchi, and directed by their cohort Rusty Sneary, this gag-a-second, mile-a-minute romp just goes to show that sometimes, the oldest jokes in the book are still in the book for a reason.

Speaking of old jokes, let’s meet Lefty & Crabbe (Kyle Ryan & Shea Pender) a Laurel and Hardy-esque vaudeville duo who wake up one day to find vaudeville’s gone kaput. So off to Tinseltown they go, nebbish assistant Gene (Huther again) in tow. Pre-Code Hollywood is of course a glamorous crazytown. It’s the sort of place where studio bigwigs keep blank rich-and-famous contracts on their person to whip out at any second; where agents have mastered double, triple, and quadruple-talk; where people have names like Mac Lloyd and Lolo Carmichael. Can they hack it without devolving into hacks? Can their friendship and old-timey craft endure in a town of fake smiles and hard noses?

One thing’s for sure: their journey is as mirthfully merciless as a Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker film. If you missed out on a joke, they got three more lined up: wordplay, slapstick, there’s something for everyone, boys and girls, and what was old is new again in the hands of this troupe. Best of all — and crucial, perhaps, for a musical devoted to taking the piss out of Movieland — it’s wrapped in honest appreciation and affection for the lost art of variety entertainment.

Just as much music rolls off the line as jokes — bedevilin’ jazz, tongue twisters, plaintive ballads and rinky-dink pastiches of old film ditties treacly enough to send the Good Ship Lollipop into a tailspin. All presided over by Annabel Revak on solo piano, just as it should.

Going forward, the piece will likely face the prospect of scaling up, of making the material more accommodating to bigger spaces. It’s vaudeville, after all, and everyone wants to play the Palace. A smidge bigger, perhaps, but one piano and a tiny stage crammed with actors running hither and thither is just right. Getting this intimate in a music theater setting with such personalities is also vaudeville, after all.

And such personalities — Underscore’s got some regular shtickmeisters on their hands. Ryan and Pender are note-perfect as the kindly oaf and uptight prig, ably abetted by their (literally) fast-talking agent (Mike Ott, the fastest mouth in storefront) and Elisabeth del Toro who grounds things in some sanity as Lolo, the peroxide blonde with an honest heart.

Supposedly, there’s a fair amount of improvising, too — no two shows may be the same. They’ve got the inventive cast for it, and that’s all the incentive anyone needs to make repeat visits. The show may end, and the production may end eventually, but lap it up and yuck it up while you can before Lefty & Crabbe go west again.

WE FORECAST BOX OFFICE BOFFO FOR THE BALLAD OF LEFTY & CRABBE

Production: The Understudy Theatre, Summer 2019
Reviewer/publication: Bill Esler, Buzz Center Stage
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The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe is a new musical comedy that is so good I found myself lamenting half-way through Act 1 that its run at Underscore Theatre ends July 14 – or ever!

It is hard to imagine anyone not being smitten by it; it is just the type of show that you can imagine endearing itself like Hand to God or Avenue Q to an Off-Off-Broadway audience as it works its way into the hearts of investor angels.

Smartly written and played with boundless verve, it takes us through the rocky path trod by many early 20th Century Vaudeville performers, who hoped to save their flagging careers – decimated by the talkies – by transferring themselves onto celluloid in Hollywood.

The main characters are Theodore “Lefty” Childs (Kyle Ryan) and James “Crabbe” Hathaway (Shea Pender), a pair of comedians not unlike Laurel & Hardy, whose regular performance circuit is disappearing as playhouses convert to movie houses. They board a train to Hollywood and we are introduced to other performers doing likewise. 

On their arrival, the duo quickly is told their brand of humor won’t translate to the screen, and they are cast separately. The portly Crabbe plays the butt of jokes in a series of demeaning “Fatty” movies (a likely nod to the real life Fatty Arbuckle who hailed from Kansas City where this show originated https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roscoe_Arbuckle). The more photogenic Lefty repeatedly plays the unrequited suitor in romantic films. (This character type is vaguely like Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis’s co-star.) Lefty & Crabbe are disillusioned at first, then inspired when the big fat checks arrive from the studio.

We meet so many notable characters and performers it’s hard to list them all – but megaphone-wielding movie director Mac Lloyd (he’s co-author Ben Auxier) is a blast; and blonde bombshell Lolo Carmichael (Elisabeth del Toro) delivers great singing. You will probably enjoy the Mr. Burns-like producer wraith Mr. Rocksfeld Stephanie Boyd). Directed by Rusty Sneary with choreography by JennaShoppe, this show in Underscore’s tiny storefront with just a piano (Annabelle Rivak yields an orchestra from the keyboard) and a dozen earnest players features songs, singing, dance, and performances that are positively top drawer. 

There is also a depth to the show, as the characters eventually tire of the vaporous Tinsel Town success and long for live performances before real people. Perhaps we're hearing a warning drawn from another era's experience with media transfoprmation that seems to parallel the offline longing engendered by our own digital age.

The writing team (book by Ben Auxier, Brian Huther and Seth Macci with music and lyrics by Auxier and Huther) has clearly drawn inspiration from the vaults of old time stage comics to adapt into this show’s slapstick schtick, with fast-paced dialog, smart jokes and throwaway one-liners. It is so quick, my mind did double-takes, provoking laughter sometimes mid-way into the next scene.

The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe was originally work shopped and produced by the Living Room Theatre in Kansas City, MO, and was produced last year in a new musicals festival in Chicago. You won’t want to miss this run at Understudy Theatre – it’s highly recommended. See it through July 14 at 4609 N. Clark St. in Chicago. 

“Lefty and Crabbe” hilariously looks back on vaudeville and the early days of movies

Production: The Understudy Theatre, Summer 2019
Reviewer/publication: Karen Topham, Chicago Onstage
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In The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe, now playing at the Underscore Theatre, two talented vaudeville performers find themselves out of a career when, with the advent of talking films, vaudeville opportunities dry up completely. Desperate for any chance to keep their act going, they agree to follow a Hollywood agent to Los Angeles and try to make it as movie stars. What they find there, though, is a cynical industry that cares little for quality and creativity, thinking only of how it can milk them for laughs or pathos. Whether they can maintain their own self-respect in such a place is anyone’s guess.

Kyle Ryan and Shea Pender star as Theodore “Lefty” Childs and James “Crabbe” Hathaway, two solo performers who are thrown together by fate and end up becoming partners and good friends. Both actors have perfect timing for the silly, quick Abbott and Costello-like jokes in their act; it’s easy to imagine that they would be popular. Their schtick, the snappy lines enhanced by solid songs and fun choreography, sees them break out as stars of the old stage circuit until everything collapses and, prodded by slick-talking agent E.G. Swellington (Mike Ott), they head west to try their luck in the new medium.

After a very funny train journey, they make it to Hollywood, where they quickly discover that no one is interested in their old act except for a famous film star named Lola Carmichael (Elisabeth del Toro), who has fond memories of their performance from her youth and always wanted to do what they did. She helps them get hired by the studio’s perpetually drunk, lecherous old owner Mr. Rocksfield (Stephanie Boyd), and their careers are off and running. Or anyway they wouldbe if either of them actually liked the insipid and insulting ways in which they are being used. 

Rusty Sneary directs this fast-paced, very funny musical as if he indeed is putting on a vaudeville show. There are silly sight gags, huge popping personalities and wonderfully sharp dialogue; even the “band” is a lone pianist (Annabelle Revak). The songs, by Brian Auxier and Brian Huther (who also play key roles in the show; Huther is a hoot), are enjoyable, entertaining, and varied. Natalie Rae shines as a would-be starlet who is eking out a living singing in speakeasies. And the book, by Auxier, Huther and Seth Macchi), though predictable, is a lot of fun. In fact, the whole thing is an absolute joy. 

Underscore Theatre has become known for delivering strong new musicals for Chicago to discover, like last year’s Haymarket. They also sponsor an annual Musical Theatre Festival, in which The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe played last year after debuting in its fleshed-out form at The Living Room Theatre in Kansas City. Many of the KC artists responsible for that production are involved in Underscore’s as well, and their love for what they created is easy to see in the exuberant, well-crafted, hilarious show now onstage at The Understudy, Underscore’s redesigned Clark St. home. There is no really serious import here, but if you’re looking for a show that’s enjoyable, funny, and easy to like, look no further.

Time to Get With the Times

Production: The Understudy Theatre, 2019
Reviewer/publication: Colin Douglas, Chicago Theatre Reviews
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Just as free broadcast television was blamed for the weakening popularity of the motion picture and theatrical industries, the less expensive ticket to the more readily available silent films and early talkies is believed to have been the final blow that killed vaudeville. In former vaudeville venues, already established as entertainment palaces, motion picture projectors were being installed as early as 1910. Lured by more lucrative work, greater salaries, better working conditions, fame and fortune, many vaudevillian performers, such as Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, began jumping ship and heading off to Hollywood. In less than four years, a half century of vaudeville tradition was wiped out by the  motion picture industry.

Such is the story of a talented team of fictional vaudeville actors, Theodore “Lefty” Childs and James “Crabbe” Hathaway. Barely able to scratch two nickels together, and finding it next to impossible to secure their next gig, these two longtime friends, “Thick as Thieves,” set off for Hollywood, hoping to “Give ‘Em a Show.” Once in LaLa Land, the two learn the hard way that, in order to survive in this world, “Change” is a part of life. Lefty and Crabbe swallow their pride and admit that it’s “Time to Get With  the Times.” The comics are taken under the wing of fast-talking, wheeler-dealer talent manager, E.G. Swellington. They audition for, and are cast by, mega movie producer Mr. Rocksfeld, after their talents are praised by lovely silent film star, Lolo Carmichael. Manic movie director Mac Lloyd effectively breaks up the vaudeville team to create two new, individual film personas for the performers. The result is, despite both fame and fortune, the boys’ longtime friendship begins to disintegrate.

This lightning-paced little musical is as clever, slick and entertaining as anything you’ll ever see. Set on an authentic-looking vaudeville stage, and spilling out into the aisles, the ten actor/singer/dancers who, except for Lefty and Crabbe, play multiple roles. They switch costumes, wigs, dialects and characterizations so fast that the audience will think this production’s cast is far larger than it is. And it’s so good! It’s funny, and yet the story has considerable pathos. We deeply empathize with Lefty and Crabbe, trying to maintain their professional standards, dignity and friendship in a fast-changing world. We sympathize with Lolo because, especially at this time in the entertainment industry, she’s just considered a pretty face without a brain, a pawn in a man’s world. And, another minor character who’s trying hard to keep afloat is Gene. From the beginning, he’s attached himself to Lefty and Crabbe as their buddy and jack-of-all-trades to help the duo achieve their success.

This joyful little musical was originally workshopped, developed and produced with the Living Room Theatre, in Kansas City, Missouri. There it began life as a Fringe Fest show in 2015. This is the fourth iteration of the piece, written by Ben Auxier, Brian Huther and Seth Macchi and with a score by Auxier and Huther. Although billed as a Chicago premiere, an abbreviated version of the musical actually played the Windy City before. Last February, Underscore Theatre, who hosts its annual Chicago Musical Theatre Festival for new works, not only presented this show, as part of its roster of eclectic, original plays. It was nominated, by audiences attending over the three weeks of performances, in ten categories. But the biggest achievement was in winning, not only Best Ensemble, Best Book and Best Director, but the coveted Best of the Fest. As a result, with some judicious rewrites and a few casting changes, “The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe” has returned, better than ever.

Directed with spunk and spirit by Rusty Sneary, musically guided by Ryan McCall and choreographed by Jenna Schoppe, this production is beautifully accompanied by Assistant Music Director, Annbelle Revak, on piano. The production sports an authentic-looking scenic design by Nicholas Schwartz. The show is lit by Benjamin Carne, with sound design by Robert Hornbostel and Matthew Chase. Christina Leinicke’s costumes are elegant and period perfect, as is Rachel Elise Johnson’s wig and hair designs. 

The production features an excellent, multitalented ensemble cast. Kyle Ryan and Shea Pender are both terrific as leading characters, Lefty and Crabbe. Portraying a number of other roles, the eight ensemble members get to demonstrate all their tricks and skills. Lovely Elisabeth Del Toro is delectable as Lolo Carmichael and Ben Auxier is magnetic and powerful as Mac Lloyd. With a kind of Red Buttons look and energy, Mike Ott is excellent as motormouthed talent manager and promoter, E.G. Swellington.

Stephanie Boyd humorously seems to be channeling SNL’s Rachel Dratch as movie mogul, Mr. Rocksfeld. Brian Huther steals every scene he’s in as sweet, shy, unassuming Gene, among others. Filling out the ensemble is Natalie Rae, as sultry chanteuse Evelyn Rose; Katy Campbell as delightful Geraldine, among other roles; and Reagan Pender gets to display his talent and versatility as Boris, along with so many other characters.

Set in Hollywood during the early 1920’s, the steady decline of vaudeville is tracked through the life and careers of this fictional comedy team. Finding themselves down on their luck motivates the two men to endure humiliation and take on roles in Hollywood in an ever-changing world of entertainment. At first just trying to survive, when fame and fortune come knocking, the boys are enticed to sacrifice their scruples and longtime friendship for a material world. But eventually morality wins out in the end and audiences will find themselves cheering for these two likable guys with heart and a dream.

Highly Recommended

LEFTY & CRABBE RECEIVES "BEST OF THE FEST" AwARD

Production: The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival, February 2018
Reviewer/publication: The Chicago Musical Theatre Festival

Musical comedy The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe has received the following awards at the 2018 Chicago Musical Theatre Festival:

Best of the Fest
Best Book
Best Ensemble
Best Director (Rusty Sneary)


It also received nominations in the following categories:

Most Promising Musical
Best Music
Best Lyrics
Best Lead Performer (Ryan Hruza)
Best Lead Performer (Shea Pender)
Best Supporting Performer (Nellie Maple Parman)

These awards were bestowed by a panel of four prominent Chicago-based musical theatre professionals. Congratulations to the whole team!