Production: The Understudy Theatre, 2019
Reviewer/publication: Colin Douglas, Chicago Theatre Reviews
(Click for original, if still hosted)
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.