The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe delivers vintage charm

Production: The Living Room Theatre, Summer 2017
Reviewer/publication: Liz Cook, The Pitch
(Click for original, if still hosted)

Old Hollywood takes on new life in The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe, a fast-paced, charismatic musical now playing at the Living Room Theatre.

The two-act musical, penned by the Friend Dog Studios trio Ben Auxier, Brian Huther and Seth Macchi, was first staged at the 2015 Kansas City Fringe Festival, where it took the Best of Fringe award.

The expanded production follows Lefty and Crabbe, two fast-talking Vaudeville performers who forge a friendship (and a Two Stooges double act) after a fortuitous booking mistake. As their audiences and savings dwindle, the two set their sights on Hollywood and the silver screen. But success comes with sacrifices: Lefty is cast in a dehumanizing, one-joke picture called Fatty Falls Down, while Crabbe is stuck farming crocodile tears as a serious romantic lead.

The Living Room’s cast soldiers capably through Huther and Auxier’s compositions and Ryan McCall’s deft arrangements (rendered with vigor by pianist Eryn Bates at Saturday evening’s performance). But the show’s strongest elements are its vintage sight gags and machine-gun word play. One from the ammo belt: “Next, a banker and balloon artist teaches us all about inflation.”

Macchi anchors the cast as Crabbe, an old-school charmer with the style and smile of a better-groomed Groucho Marx. His good-natured chemistry with Lefty (Michael Hudgens, expressive and relaxed) sells even the weirdest non sequiturs.  

Ellen Kirk lends manic energy and a winking sketch-comedy edge to Rocksfeld, a gin-pickled studio executive. Mike Ott shows off his comedic chops as a slew of memorable characters, most notably E.G. Swellington, a Hollywood agent whose chatter could set a few land-speed records. Elise Poehling is likewise effective in multiple roles but appears most often as Lolo Carmichael, a platinum-blond starlet with more between the ears than her fiancé (Josh Gleeson, also strong) gives her credit for. Molly Denninghoff’s silky voice shines in “Forget About It,” a sultry speakeasy solo. And Brian Huther is lovable and … moist as Gene, a hapless manager with a Droopy-dog voice and a penchant for forehead-sponging.

Director Rusty Sneary and stage manager Ellyn Calvert keep the whiplash scene changes seamless and the action airtight. Key to the magic is Sneary and his crew’s imaginative use of minimal props and sets. A swath of red fabric draped over a rope evokes a Hollywood red carpet; a jamb-less door is laid flat to create a boardroom table. Costume designer Nancy Robinson deserves her own curtain call for clothing 40-plus characters in handsome period dress.

The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe doesn’t exactly tread new ground, but novelty isn’t the point. Tune your expectations to the key of classical Hollywood cinema: The plot curves in predictable ways, and characters are stretched thin to fit comic archetypes. 

Even so, not every scene or song feels red-carpet ready. “Change,” in particular, feels underwrought, complicated by a less comfortable range for the Living Room’s cast.

But the heartfelt performances and unbridled silliness add up to an affectionate evening of escapism. The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe is the stage equivalent of a summer blockbuster — you may not leave the theater changed, but you’ll certainly leave it entertained.