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
(Click for original, if still hosted)

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.