The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe tells a sad tale of the end of vaudeville

Production: The Understudy Theatre, Summer 2019
Review/Publication: Max Maller / Chicago Reader
(Click for original, if still hosted)

The heyday of vaudeville is over and done with 15 minutes into this delightful new musical from Underscore Theatre Company, with book and lyrics by Brian Huther, Ben Auxier, and Seth Macchi and music by Huther and Auxier. Its heroes are two relics of the old school with a duo act to beat the band and nowhere to perform it, what with music halls shuttering and Hollywood's first flowering guzzling the entertainment market share. Lefty is played by Kyle Ryan, one of the best sad clowns I have ever seen. The deeper pain he's in, the wider he smiles. His partner Crabbe is played by Shea Pender. Their close vocal harmony in the show's duets lends added sweetness to the tender interaction of these outsize personalities.

Bolstering the central duo is a lively ensemble of minor characters. Tweed hats and flapper wigs abound. Footlights, check. The patter between songs comes fast and joke-heavy, especially when Mike Ott, who plays the conniving film agent in the boys' corner, does his auctioneer's bark at a million miles per hour.

It's a rip-roaring time, but the ground note of melancholy never fades away. Elisabeth Del Toro plays a starlet named Lolo Carmichael who's engaged to an asinine producer. Lolo, like Lefty, has melancholy threaded through her character, but she understands, and becomes Lefty's teacher in understanding that laughter doesn't have to be about being happy. It can work as a disguise. You don't even have to mean it when you smile, it turns out. But there happens to be no other way to stay alive in a world that's gone haywire overnight.