The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe doesn’t just begin—it explodes. Two Vaudevillian comics —Lefty (Kyle Ryan) and Crabbe (Shea Pender) — are cranky when they find each other in what they each think is his own dressing room. Then, in the blink of the speeding metronome that paces this musical, they are both on stage in the first of many Who’s On First? moments.
For the next two hours Groucho’s ghost keeps the punch line drum rolls coming as these two Vaudevillians become fast friends and newbies in Tinsel Town. Meanwhile, the rest of this uber-talented cast – only eight in number but feeling more like a theatrical Army Division — heaps on the song, dance and action, switching characters faster than the speed of an action video game.
This story by cast members Ben Auxier and Brian Huther (also with Seth Macchi on Book) is full of bits, but nary a bit player. Lefty & Crabbe might be the headliners but it’s their fellow cast members that are the anti-void, from their quirky manager who sleeps in a trunk (Brian Huther), to their physical trainer (Reagan Pender, in on of many roles allowing him to flex his accent put-on muscles), to the Hollywood mogul lush who hires them (Stephanie Boyd), and more. This writer imagines that to portray the swarmy fast-talking Hollywood agent E.G. Swellington, actor Mike Ott did a séance to summon W.S. Gilbert’s ghost to teach him how make the scripts bon mots do their ever silvery speed from his tongue.
For those of us lucky enough (read: old enough) to have sat at the knee of elders who came of age in Vaudevillian times, know that you too will likely adore the way playwrights/composers Auxier and Huther have somehow bypassed the slow demise of verbal dexterity that was once commonplace for any high school graduate. It’s not only language-based shticks-- though that’s the main juice--but also a lot of physical slapstick too. (Spoiler Alert!) For this writer, watching the cast take a bouncing train ride together is in itself a treasured moment for the memory banks.
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The music is catchy, in this writer’s view, if not especially transporting. But it is the glue that allows this cast to “put on a show”, to paraphrase a recurring lyric. Though we get breathers here and there from croons so ably delivered (especially Natalie Rae as speakeasy singer Evelyn Rose and Elisabeth Del Toro as Lolo Carmichael) this reviewer craved a chaser of a few more tension breaks a la Harpo just silently smiling and giving non-verbal horn toots.
This is a Day at the Races style marathon of fun. The cast seems to be having a ball—and you feel it. If you just can’t get enough of those oldie comedy flicks born more of Vaudeville stages than silver screen, you are well-advised to change your schedule to catch this show. And if you just want a couple of hours of fun escapism, this is a good pick too.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
THE BALLAD OF LEFTY & CRABBE
Book and Lyrics by Brian Huther, Ben Auxier & Seth Macchi
Music by Ben Auxier and Brian Huther
Additional Music and Arrangements by Ryan McCall
Directed by Rusty Sneary
Music Direction by Ryan McCall
Choreography by Jenna Schoppe
Ben Auxier, Stephanie Boyd, Katy Campbell, Elisabeth Del Toro, Brian Huther, Mike Ott, Reagan Pender, Shea Pender, Natalie Rae and Kyle Ryan. Swings: Sophia Foldvari and Nate Hall.