‘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
(Click for original, if still hosted)

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