Thursday, April 07, 2016

Service with a Smile: Drury Lane's World Premiere of 'Hazel' is a Well-Maid Musical That Could Use Some Tidying Up -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Hazel: A Musical Maid in America
Music by Ron Abel
Lyrics by Chuck Steffan
Book by Lissa Levin
Directed & choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace, IL
Thru May 29

Let me, atypically, cut right to the chase.

Hazel, subtitled A Musical Maid in America but from here on out referred to without it, represents an impressive effort from Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace (DRO) in aiming to give its audiences something brand new.

Whether you are familiar with the 1960s TV sitcom and/or the comic strip by Tom Key on which the musical is jointly based, a musical theater lover excited by world premieres yet understanding that few are perfectly hatched, a fan of the stellar work DRO regularly does, or any combination of the above, if you attend Hazel with hopes of enjoying yourself you should go home quite happy.

Photo credit on all: Brett Beiner
To begin with, the terrific Klea Blackhurst is a ton of fun in the title role, particularly when she breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience. With strong comic verve and a good singing voice, she is enough of a delight that the show notably suffers when she is offstage, despite several other nice roles, performances, scenes and songs.

I was not at all familiar with the Hazel sitcom, but from what I've read, the musical's book by Lissa Levin makes the show work as something of a prequel. Set in 1965, it has an infinitely intuitive and skilled maid named Hazel Burke first coming to work for the Baxters--an attorney named George (played here by Ken Clark), his wife Dorothy (Summer Naomi Smart) and their son Harold (Casey Lyons).

Unlike Mary Poppins, Hazel doesn't fly, but having recently seen yet another version of the Disney musical recently, I couldn't help but think of her as providing domestic help with a spoonful of sugar and a glass of sass.

Also factoring in prominently--some perhaps too much so as Hazel tries to fit too many things into its sitcomesque narrative--are three of Harold's precocious pals (Tyler Martin, Ava Morse, Rowan Moxley), a quirky local TV pitchman named Bonkers Johnson (Ed Kross) and a pair of Air Force officers (Bill Bannon, Meghan Murphy) who arrive to investigate the UFOs the kids claim to have seen.

If you are wondering how all this dovetails with the story of a maid--who in the course of solving every possible problem visits a grocery store and Cuban nightclub, among other errands--let me further convey that stage time is also devoted to George seeking advancement in his law firm, Dorothy trying to balance being a mother with newly returning to the workforce as an interior designer, and one of the characters above becoming smitten with Hazel.

It is to the considerable credit of the strong cast, composer Ron Abel, lyricist Chuck Steffan, director Joshua Bergasse, set designer Kevin Depinet and all involved that each scene devoted to Hazel's myriad aspects works relatively well on its own.

Blackhurst delights in Hazel's prologue number, "You're Gonna Need Help," songs for Bonkers (with his Bonkettes) and the Air Force duo are fun, the always splendid Smart delivers Dorothy's wistful "Sheer Perfection" in accordance to its title, Clark emotes as George on "The First Law of Living," young Casey Lyons as Harold sings wonderfully on "Space" and I couldn't help but love Hazel's ode to cherished keepsakes entitled "A Part 'A Me."

And this doesn't even cover hot-stepping chefs and mambo dancers, or give enough credit to several funny lines in Levin's script for this slice of 1960s America.

There's a whole lot there, and even if Hazel can use some winnowing to keep sharper focus on its title character, those looking simply to be entertained will be in abundance.

Even though this new work didn't enrapture me on par with sublime recent DRO renditions of Billy Elliot, West Side Story, Les Miserables and other well-known shows, I wholeheartedly applaud Drury Lane--like Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire and Theatre at the Center in Munster--undertaking the development of new musicals to present their subscribers...and conceivably, eventually, audiences at similar venues nationwide.

Especially for the mostly mature crowds that support local theater, and who are likely to remember Hazel from TV, this could be a musical that brings considerable mirth not only in Oakbrook Terrace, but far and wide.

That said, while stipulating that suggestions of newly-developed shows being "Pre-Broadway" often emanate from critics like the Tribune's Chris Jones rather than the theaters themselves, I don't perceive Hazel in its present form being destined for success on the Great White Way.

Like Beaches before it at Drury Lane, and October Sky and Hero at Marriott, and The Beverly Hillbillies at Theatre at the Center--none of which have yet been staged on Broadway--Hazel is an estimable, entertaining musical with probably too much geniality and not enough edge to entice hordes of tourists in Times Square.

That doesn't mean it definitely won't hit the Big Apple--and I'd be delighted if my conjecture is proven wrong--but along with a number of refinements, I think Hazel would need to supplant the best thing it currently has going.

Though Blackhurst, who has nice NYC credits, is unconditionally marvelous--a Jeff Award would seem quite possible--a Broadway producer would probably need to entice someone like Bette Midler or Whoopi Goldberg to bring true box office pizazz to a "brand name" title well-known only to an older, U.S. demographic.

But not everything good winds up on Broadway, and not everything that winds up on Broadway is even as good as Hazel in its current form. So while some tidying up of the narrative is in order, there is no reason for this fine premiering show not to be warmly welcomed in its original home.

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