Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Evan Hanover .
In The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe, now playing at the Underscore Theatre, two talented vaudeville performers find themselves out of a career when, with the advent of talking films, vaudeville opportunities dry up completely. Desperate for any chance to keep their act going, they agree to follow a Hollywood agent to Los Angeles and try to make it as movie stars. What they find there, though, is a cynical industry that cares little for quality and creativity, thinking only of how it can milk them for laughs or pathos. Whether they can maintain their own self-respect in such a place is anyone’s guess.
Kyle Ryan and Shea Pender star as Theodore “Lefty” Childs and James “Crabbe” Hathaway, two solo performers who are thrown together by fate and end up becoming partners and good friends. Both actors have perfect timing for the silly, quick Abbott and Costello-like jokes in their act; it’s easy to imagine that they would be popular. Their schtick, the snappy lines enhanced by solid songs and fun choreography, sees them break out as stars of the old stage circuit until everything collapses and, prodded by slick-talking agent E.G. Swellington (Mike Ott), they head west to try their luck in the new medium.
After a very funny train journey, they make it to Hollywood, where they quickly discover that no one is interested in their old act except for a famous film star named Lola Carmichael (Elisabeth del Toro), who has fond memories of their performance from her youth and always wanted to do what they did. She helps them get hired by the studio’s perpetually drunk, lecherous old owner Mr. Rocksfield (Stephanie Boyd), and their careers are off and running. Or anyway they would be if either of them actually liked the insipid and insulting ways in which they are being used.
Rusty Sneary directs this fast-paced, very funny musical as if he indeed is putting on a vaudeville show. There are silly sight gags, huge popping personalities and wonderfully sharp dialogue; even the “band” is a lone pianist (Annabelle Revak). The songs, by Brian Auxier and Brian Huther (who also play key roles in the show; Huther is a hoot), are enjoyable, entertaining, and varied. Natalie Rae shines as a would-be starlet who is eking out a living singing in speakeasies. And the book, by Auxier, Huther and Seth Macchi), though predictable, is a lot of fun. In fact, the whole thing is an absolute joy.
Underscore Theatre has become known for delivering strong new musicals for Chicago to discover, like last year’s Haymarket. They also sponsor an annual Musical Theatre Festival, in which The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe played last year after debuting in its fleshed-out form at The Living Room Theatre in Kansas City. Many of the KC artists responsible for that production are involved in Underscore’s as well, and their love for what they created is easy to see in the exuberant, well-crafted, hilarious show now onstage at The Understudy, Underscore’s redesigned Clark St. home. There is no really serious import here, but if you’re looking for a show that’s enjoyable, funny, and easy to like, look no further.
The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe is an Underscore Theatre production now playing at The Understudy, 4609 N. Clark, Chicago through July 14. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.