The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe delivers vintage charm

Production: The Living Room Theatre, Summer 2017
Reviewer/publication: Liz Cook, The Pitch
(Click for original, if still hosted)

Old Hollywood takes on new life in The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe, a fast-paced, charismatic musical now playing at the Living Room Theatre.

The two-act musical, penned by the Friend Dog Studios trio Ben Auxier, Brian Huther and Seth Macchi, was first staged at the 2015 Kansas City Fringe Festival, where it took the Best of Fringe award.

The expanded production follows Lefty and Crabbe, two fast-talking Vaudeville performers who forge a friendship (and a Two Stooges double act) after a fortuitous booking mistake. As their audiences and savings dwindle, the two set their sights on Hollywood and the silver screen. But success comes with sacrifices: Lefty is cast in a dehumanizing, one-joke picture called Fatty Falls Down, while Crabbe is stuck farming crocodile tears as a serious romantic lead.

The Living Room’s cast soldiers capably through Huther and Auxier’s compositions and Ryan McCall’s deft arrangements (rendered with vigor by pianist Eryn Bates at Saturday evening’s performance). But the show’s strongest elements are its vintage sight gags and machine-gun word play. One from the ammo belt: “Next, a banker and balloon artist teaches us all about inflation.”

Macchi anchors the cast as Crabbe, an old-school charmer with the style and smile of a better-groomed Groucho Marx. His good-natured chemistry with Lefty (Michael Hudgens, expressive and relaxed) sells even the weirdest non sequiturs.  

Ellen Kirk lends manic energy and a winking sketch-comedy edge to Rocksfeld, a gin-pickled studio executive. Mike Ott shows off his comedic chops as a slew of memorable characters, most notably E.G. Swellington, a Hollywood agent whose chatter could set a few land-speed records. Elise Poehling is likewise effective in multiple roles but appears most often as Lolo Carmichael, a platinum-blond starlet with more between the ears than her fiancé (Josh Gleeson, also strong) gives her credit for. Molly Denninghoff’s silky voice shines in “Forget About It,” a sultry speakeasy solo. And Brian Huther is lovable and … moist as Gene, a hapless manager with a Droopy-dog voice and a penchant for forehead-sponging.

Director Rusty Sneary and stage manager Ellyn Calvert keep the whiplash scene changes seamless and the action airtight. Key to the magic is Sneary and his crew’s imaginative use of minimal props and sets. A swath of red fabric draped over a rope evokes a Hollywood red carpet; a jamb-less door is laid flat to create a boardroom table. Costume designer Nancy Robinson deserves her own curtain call for clothing 40-plus characters in handsome period dress.

The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe doesn’t exactly tread new ground, but novelty isn’t the point. Tune your expectations to the key of classical Hollywood cinema: The plot curves in predictable ways, and characters are stretched thin to fit comic archetypes. 

Even so, not every scene or song feels red-carpet ready. “Change,” in particular, feels underwrought, complicated by a less comfortable range for the Living Room’s cast.

But the heartfelt performances and unbridled silliness add up to an affectionate evening of escapism. The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe is the stage equivalent of a summer blockbuster — you may not leave the theater changed, but you’ll certainly leave it entertained.

Fringe original show develops to full blown MUSICAL

Production: The Living Room Theatre, Summer 2017
Reviewer/publication: Bob Evans, KC Applauds
(Click for original, if still hosted.)

“The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe” written by the tremendous trio, Ben Auxier, Brian Huther, and Seth Macchi, debuted at the KC Fringe Festival two years ago to sold out audiences as a 90-minute one-act [correction: 60-minute], but after revision, additional characters and a new concept, the show guarantees roll in the aisle laughs, fun music, and the kind of zany comedy Kansas City audiences expect from the playwrights.

Guaranteed to knock-the-socks-off, the show tickles the funny bone from the opening notes of the score composed by Auxier and Huther. Once given to music director, Ryan McCall, the music took on its 1920s jazz and Vaudeville style. Auxier credits McCall for making the music so timely and well-suited for the story of two down and out Vaudevillians at the end of that era as talkies were overtaking the nation. Their careers mirrored that of Dainty June (from “Gypsy”) as audiences flocked to motion pictures and left Vaudeville houses empty.

The story centers on the down and out performer team, Lefty and Crabbe, as they struggle to decide what to do with their fading careers with only a nickle left between them. Just think of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy….that’s right Laurel and Hardy, the team of silent movies from the early 20s and you get the jist of the lead characters. Only, Lefty and Crabbe are comics and singers, and the leap from Vaudeville to silent movies scare the bejesus out of them. But, desperate people make desperate decisions.

“The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe” celebrates this Jazz Age on Hollywood comedies and delivers a solid story line of the people who wheeled and dealed in the star-making machine. The musical comedy has heart, soul, abundant laughs, crazy characters (gleaned from Hollywood icons of the era), and costumes appropriate for the time period. From the opening notes of the score, the audience is swept back to an earlier, simpler time and the carefree Jazz Age takes over.

The Living Room debuted “The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe” in its original Fringe Festival format. Now, lightning strikes again as The Living Room and director Rusty Sneary present the re-tooled production that shows that the original story had substance, but now has legs and a much smoother story-line, better music and orchestration, and a more abundant cast of characters to work among.

Genius casting brings “The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe” to Kansas City audiences and gives them the chance to see this knee-slapping buffoonery before it moves on to bigger and better venues. Hudgens and Macchi absolutely carry the show with their singing and acting. They are a joy to watch. The interaction and camaraderie amongst the cast sends electricity to the audience. Ott and Gleeson give reason to laugh at each of the multiple characters they play.


'The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe' at the Living Room is a musical comedy worth savoring

Production: The Living Room Theatre, Summer 2017
Reviewer/publication: Christine Pivovar, The KC Star
(Click here for original, if still hosted.)

The story of two vaudevillians trying to make the transition to Hollywood is, to quote the song, a tale as old as time. But “The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe,” a 2015 KC Fringe project now in its debut production at the Living Room theatre, takes that old-timey charm, adds the sharp humor of Friend Dog Studios’ Ben Auxier, Brian Huther and Seth Macchi, and serves up a musical comedy that feels both familiar and zeitgeisty.

Lefty Childs and Crabbe Hathaway are two vaudeville performers put together by chance who create a successful double-act that runs for years before vaudeville’s star fades in favor of the movies. Encouraged by fast-talking agent E.G. Swellington, the duo heads to Hollywood to make their fortune. There, they meet with success as individual performers: Lefty as a walking physical comedy gag and Crabbe as a smoldering romantic hero.

But both feel uneasy about the roles the studio has forced them into. Will they sell out their original vision in favor of an adoring audience and a steady paycheck, or stay true to their own style and talents? (You know what they’re going to choose.)

The dialogue is a pastiche of classic Hollywood, with plenty of knowing winks at the audience. Auxier, Huther and Macchi have fun especially in the naming of things — people like gangster-film star Bananas McFoster, places (“Hunger Strikes: A bowling alley for suffragettes”) and movies such as “Hercules and the Girl Who Don’t Do Nothing.”

Michael Hudgens and Macchi, as Lefty and Crabbe, respectively, have good chemistry together and are instantly endearing. Not so much an odd couple as a one true pairing, they genuinely like each other. This friendship is both the secret to the duo’s success and the heart of the musical.

Each of the other members of the ensemble plays at least five characters each, from the alcoholic studio head Rocksfield (Ellen Kirk) to the starlet-who’s-more-than-just-her-looks Lolo Carmichael (Elise Poehling). Mike Ott stands out as he impressively rattles off Swellington’s mile-a-minute dialogue. Huther drew big laughs as Gene, Lefty and Crabbe’s clueless yet devoted manager.

Regina Weller’s set is simple and versatile; the actors use a movable door for laughs as well as for a tabletop. The music is provided by a single pianist on stage the whole time (Ryan McCall and Eryn Bates), not including an ensemble tune that adds foot-stomp and prop-glass percussion. Nancy Robinson deserves special recognition for the dizzying number of period costumes on display as the actors continually exit as one character (or gender) and enter as a completely different one moments later.

The original songs by Auxier and Huther, all in a ragtimey-jazz style, are as catchy and witty as the songs of the period. Lefty and Crabbe’s team anthem “Thick as Thieves” and the speakeasy song “Forget About It” stand out in particular.

In his introduction, director Rusty Sneary promises the audience pure entertainment, not something that will make your head hurt. “Lefty and Crabbe” is that. But the team is also able to tap into some kind of immediacy — whether it’s the small theater, the local talent or the 1920s nostalgia — that makes this production something to savor.

(And don’t forget to stay for the post-curtain call sequence.)

The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe at The Living Room Theatre

Production: The Living Room Theatre, Summer 2017
Reviewer/publication: Alan Portner, Broadway World

(Click for original, if still hosted.)

"The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe" sparkles as a completely home- grown, home- performed, home-produced and expanded reboot to the 2015 Fringe Festival hit now enjoying its world premiere at The Living Room Theatre in the Kansas City Crossroads District through June 18. "Lefty and Crabbe" has matured and ripened on the vine and is now most definitely ready for prime time.

Performed in an inventive style that owes debts to Vaudeville, the British Music Hall, silent movies and early radio, "Lefty and Crabbe" makes huge demands on its cast of eight and all prove themselves equal to the task. "Lefty and Crabbe" can be fall down funny.

Lefty (Seth Macchi) and Crabbe (Michael Hudgens) are single vaudevillians who meet by chance at an audition and become a comedy team. They perform successfully on the poverty stricken, secondary, theater circuits over years while they experience vaudeville's slow death due to the influence of a new technology (film).

Our comedy duo is discovered by talent scout Dougie Brownhouse or E.G. Swellington (Mike Ott) and offered train fare to Hollywood for an audition. With Gene (Brian Huther), their new manager the three of them sally forth. The reason there is a little trouble with character names will become clear in a minute.

"Lefty and Crabbe" has two acts, fifteen scenes, eleven musical numbers, and 44 characters, but only eight actors. This means that the six ensemble members must play 42 parts in addition to being the chorus. They pull it off excellently with the aid of wigs, hats, quick changes, dialects, an inventive yet minimal set and sterling choreography including multiple scene changes that all improbably work slicker than snot. To my mind, all members of this group are cast in lead roles.

While riding the cross-country train to LA, Crabbe meets gorgeous lounge singer Evelyn Rose (Molly Denninghoff). We learn that Evelyn is following her heart to sing in a prohibition era speakeasy. We get a hint of what may await Lefty and Crabbe in California, but the moment is allowed to pass.

The boys do get their movie audition, but life in the movies is not all they hoped. They are finally flush with money, but are working in films that do not take advantage of their special talents. Physically, Lefty is a big guy, Crabbe is more the leading man type. Movie mogul Mr. Rocksfeld (Ellen Kirk) insists they work to type. Lefty is cast in repetitive projects a la Fatty Arbuckel. Crabbe stars in action and romantic films a la early Douglas Fairbanks. The director is prototypical cartoon Mac Lloyd (Josh Gleeson) and his female star is the alluring but sensitive Lolo Carmichael (Elise Poehling).

Both our boys are successful in film, but troubled by the superficiality of it all. Old Mr. Rocksfeld wants to sign them to a five-year contract doing more of the same. The boys rebel to various degrees.

I won't ruin the resolution for you. You'll have to buy a ticket to find out how the conflict works out. This show is entertainment plus from opening to final curtain. The dialog is tight. The dances are appropriate. The songs are good. The various characterizations (many of which repeat) are distinct and funny.

Director Rusty Sneary has had a great time with this group. He was seated directly behind us in the audience and his pleasure with his creation was more than evident. The little sight gags (that you might miss) are absolutely present. A certain unification of spirit and intent holds the performance together. These people enjoy themselves on stage.

Blocking is inventive. Unnecessary movement is spare. Cues are jumped on. Scene changes are choreographed and do not distract. Musical Director Ryan McCall plays a mean piano and arranges a professional score. All of these folks can sing, dance, and hold harmonies. Choreographer Kyra Weinberger does a great job of understanding the various dance talents she has in her actors and in maximizing their effectiveness.

Playwrights Ben Auxier, Brian Huther, and Seth Macchi have put together an absolutely enjoyable evening at the theater. Dialog is tight. The jokes are funny. There are more than passable songs. Two of the authors perform. Seth is Crabbe and Brian is (or are) Gene, Tanner C, Antoine, Boris, Director, Mailman, and Writer #3. Ben has since moved on to Chicago to work and act. The overall effect is more than worth seeing.

When Movies Usurped the Stage: New Musical "Lefty & Crabbe" Looks Back

Production: The Living Room Theatre, Summer 2017
Reviewer/publication: Robert Trussell, KC Studio
(Click here for original, if still hosted)

The Living Room steps out its customary role as a producer/presenter of work that challenges, stimulates and poses tough questions with the world premiere of a creative, lightweight musical you could easily picture on the stage of the dinner theater.“The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe,” written by Ben Auxier, Brian Huther and Seth Macchi, traffics in theater nostalgia as it depicts the evolution of a vaudeville comedy team into movie stars during the silent era. It feels a lot like those showbiz saga films from the 1930s and ‘40s, although the Living Room’s slim budget doesn’t allow for anything approaching a Busby Berkeley dance sequence.

You might dismiss this show as derivative and irrelevant if it weren’t so damned clever. The dialogue is crisp and rhythmic. The songs are seductive and heartfelt. Eccentric characters populate the stage. The script wears its sentimentality on its sleeve but the beguiling performances are so well executed that after a point you no longer care.

Director Rusty Sneary keeps the show moving at a breakneck pace as a cast of eight fills more than 40 roles. Lightning-quick costume changes are part of the fun and minimal props allow for instantaneous scene changes.

The title characters are played by Michael Hudgens (Lefty) and Macchi (Crabbe), a couple of vaudeville entertainers who become a team by accident when an inept stage manager schedules them for the same slot during a performance. But as vaudeville enters its decline with the rising popularity of movies, the pair find themselves with only a nickel between them.

A fast-talking agent (Mike Ott, in one of several indelibly executed comic roles), persuades them to come with him to Hollywood, where he tells them they can be stars in the pictures. Among those they encounter are a brash director (the versatile Josh Gleeson), a sympathetic star (an appealing Elise Poehling), a crazed studio boss (Ellen Kirk in an amusing bit of cross-dressing) and a sultry torch singer (Molly Denninghoff at her sultriest/torchiest best). Co-writer Huther appears in several roles, including Gene, a hapless manager who tries to steer the duo’s fledgling career through the murky waters of the Hollywood shark tank.

Indeed, the depiction of Hollywood politics is inherently satirical and comic. There’s also a semi-serious commentary on the artificiality of film versus the real human connections in live performance. When movies became the dominant popular art form, the show implies, we lost something vital.

On opening night the score was played live on an upright piano by Ryan McCall, who also wrote the arrangements. (He and Eryn Bates will perform at alternating performances.)

Although I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d seen it all before, the show nevertheless conveyed a freshness that told me that this was anything but a cynical exercise. The writers and actors won me over with the sheer joy of performing and love of theater. And that’s something you can’t fake.

“The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe” is part of the Living Room’s mission to produce original work by local or expatriate artists. Other theater companies should take note. I suspect this show has a future.

Lefty and Crabbe catapults audience back to 1920s Vaudeville Era

Production: Fringe Festival, 2015
Publication/writer: AXS, Bob Evans
(Click for original, if still hosted.)

A flashback to Vaudeville, the early days of motion pictures, and the time of radio comedy shows springs back to life with the new play, “The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe,” as part of the Kansas City Fringe Festival 2015. The show plays at The Living Room.

Line up early or pre-purchase tickets for this musical comedy that's selling out and generating standing ovations at the KC Fringe Festival. The Living Room, one of the smaller venues, only seats about 80 persons and lines for tickets grow fast. The one hour show features a musical sound track of Ben Auxier on piano like the days when silent movies featured live piano players to accompany the motion picture. In this case, it’s live action in the days of the early 1920's when Vaudeville was dying and motion pictures were exploding.

Lefty and Crabbe open the story with their act and look at the reality that Vaudeville is dead and that motion pictures are calling. The story examines their friendship and loyalty to each other while obstacles sidetrack them at times. The funny, heart-warming story keeps audiences laughing throughout. Auxier’s ragtime piano compositions set a lively tone for the story.

Give a lot of credit to Michael Hudgens and Seth Macchi who play the leads of Lefty and Crabbe. They resemble an Abbott and Costello team with one thin and the other chubby. Both just shine in the show. They sing, they dance, they act, and most importantly, they command the stage in each of their scenes, together and alone. Their chemistry works as does the story.

Get ready to laugh and smile because Brian Huther, Auxier, and Macchi combined their creative minds and talents to write this happy piece. Huther and Auxier perform regularly at improv events and are well knows as Dog and Friend Dog. Their creative minds always amaze fans. Adding Macchi to the mix for the penning of “The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe” just shows the strength and depth of their talent.

Do not miss this show. "The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe" is one of the most fun shows of the KC Fringe. The show is at The Living Room, so plan accordingly to get tickets and not get shut out. The show runs just short of one hour.