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THEATER REVIEW The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-06-16

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Authors: Ben Auxier, Brian Huther and Seth Macchi ( book ); Auxier & Huther ( music & lyrics )

At: The Understudy, 4906 N. Clark St. Tickets: UnderscoreTheatre.org; $20-$25. Runs through: July 14

The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe is a bouncy, good natured, lickety-split new musical set around 1927-28, when Hollywood switched to talkies but still made silent films as well.

It's a bromance about stage comedians Lefty Childs ( Kyle Ryan ) and Crabbe Hathaway ( Shea Pender ) ,who move to movies as vaudeville is dying, guided by oily agent E. G. Swellington ( incredibly fast talking Mike Ott ). Breaking up their double act, the studio makes chubby Lefty a comedian ( think Fatty Arbuckle ) and handsome Crabbe a romantic lead, enhancing their bank accounts but depleting their craft and friendship. Personally and professionally they are better together than apart. There are many parallels to last year's exquisite and poignant film, Stan and Ollie, but Lefty and Crabbe ( written before the film was released ) moves with the speed of an animated cartoon and is not a serious show.

The clever lyrics and dialogue brim with puns and wordplay. Female star Lolo Carmichael ( Elisabeth Del Toro ) sings in Smile Your Way Through, "It takes effort to be effortless, it's work to play pretend." And Swellington intones, 'If you don't want to miss your gravy train you'd better get your mashed potato ticket stamped," a droll absurdity.

The Underscore Theatre cast of 10 enthusiastically plays in an exaggerated knockabout style, directed by Rusty Sneary. Leads Ryan and Pender have good comic chops and fine high baritone voices ( especially Ryan ) and are ably supported by Del Toro and Natalie Rae ( as speakeasy chanteuse Evelyn Rose ) who also are fine songsters.

Despite its energy and style, however, The Ballad of Lefty and Crabbe could be better. Dying vaudeville and early Hollywood are familiar tropes ( consider Singin' in the Rain, Merrily We Roll Along and Gypsy ) and this show borrows conventional caricatures they've helped establish such as the egotistical studio chief, blonde female star and maniacal director. The minimal character development is OK for stereotypes but not for Lefty, Crabbe, Lolo and Evelyn who need fleshing out.

Most of the 14 songs ( nimbly accompanied by pianist Annabelle Revak ) are tuneful up tempo numbers, varied by one waltz and one actual ballad ( Lefty's Eat Your Heart Out ). Two additional change of pace numbers would do wonders and could deepen the characters, perhaps something romantic involving Lolo and/or Evelyn ( who needs more to do ).

Finally, the show teases us with snippets of Lefty and Crabbe's vaudeville routines, but we never actually see them perform their double act. Someplace, somehow they gotta' show us their stuff! The writers are clever enough to pull this off.

The Understudy is Underscore Theatre's new storefront home ( 50 pleasantly roomy seats ), within which scenic designer Nicholas Schwartz has created a colorful tiny proscenium stage perfectly suggesting yesteryear's small time vaudeville.


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