Thursday, June 13, 2019

A Fun Partnership: Underscore Presents 'The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe' By Way of Kansas City -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe
a new musical
Underscore Theatre Co.
at the Understudy
Thru July 14

The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe is a fun show that merits extra kudos for being a homegrown musical.

It was actually homegrown in Kansas City, MO, at that city's Living Room Theatre, where the piece was written by Ben Auxier, Brian Hunter and Seth Maachi (the first two are credited with the music & lyrics).

Chicago's Underscore Theatre Company, in a nifty new home called The Understudy (at Clark & Wilson), created a stellar musical of its own last year with Haymarket, and is now presenting the Chicago premiere of Lefty & Crabbe.

I believe credit for creating the show remains with The Living Room, but its Artistic Director, Rusty Sneary, is directing it in Chicago, while both Auxier and Hunter are in the cast.

Photo credit on all: Evan Hanover
So to whatever extent "partnership" is officially apt, that's what The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe is celebrating, in both its existence and its storyline.

At some unspecified point in the early 20th century, Lefty Childs (played here by Kyle Ryan) and Crabbe Hathaway (Shea Pender)--think Laurel & Hardy or Abbott & Costello, with Crabbe being the thin one--come together abruptly as a vaudeville comedy act.

Accompanied by their Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe cast mates, they belt out the enjoyable "Give 'Em a Show" as their success grows. But when the dying days of vaudeville relegates them to playing empty bowling alleys, the pair strike out for Hollywood.

Spurred on by fast-talking agent, E.G. Swellington (a stellar Mike Ott), they meet--among others--a sultry singer, Evelyn Rose (Natalie Rae), a pretty starlet, Lolo Carmichael (Elizabeth Del Toro) and an elderly studio head, Mr. Rocksfeld (Stephanie Boyd, clearly having fun with the role).

In playing the pair's pal, Gene, and film director, Mac, respectively, Hunter and Auxier merit mention for their work onstage, as well as for composing several fine songs such as "Smile Your Way Through" (nicely sung by Del Toro) and Lefty's "Eat Your Heart Out."

The audience was told pre-show that many of the lines each night are improvised, so in terms of singing, acting, slapstick and ad-libbing, this is clearly a talented cast, and if short of a masterpiece, an entertaining show that should make for a fun night out.

There seem to be a few more characters than necessary, and with many of the ensemble players rotating through roles, the story--and inherent pathos--doesn't congeal quite perfectly.

I was a bit more enticed by Lefty & Crabbe as vaudeville stars and pals than the strangers in a strange Hollywood land narrative that found them losing a bit of themselves, but any show that reminds of Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello and Singin' in the Rain can't help but bring some smiles.

Pianist Annabelle Revak does a nice job providing musical accompaniment, and all of the songs are richly delivered.

Through the Underscore website, tickets seems to top out at $25, and discounts may be available through Goldstar and elsewhere.

So even though The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe doesn't reach the qualitative heights of Hamilton, West Side Story or the very best musicals ever created, its price point doesn't beg direct comparisons.

Devoid of which, it really is a delight, a fine new musical staged in a venue you probably wouldn't even peg as a theater from the outside, making it all the more cool. (Hopefully, the HVAC system will become better calibrated, along with access to the one restroom.)

If you love new musicals, entertainment history and Chicago storefront theater, I suggest you catch this fun work by the_Underscore @ the Understudy.

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