Production: The Understudy Theatre, Summer 2019
Reviewer/publication: Bill Esler, Buzz Center Stage
(Click for original, if still hosted)
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.