The story of two vaudevillians trying to make the transition to Hollywood is, to quote the song, a tale as old as time. But “The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe,” a 2015 KC Fringe project now in its debut production at the Living Room theatre, takes that old-timey charm, adds the sharp humor of Friend Dog Studios’ Ben Auxier, Brian Huther and Seth Macchi, and serves up a musical comedy that feels both familiar and zeitgeisty.
Lefty Childs and Crabbe Hathaway are two vaudeville performers put together by chance who create a successful double-act that runs for years before vaudeville’s star fades in favor of the movies. Encouraged by fast-talking agent E.G. Swellington, the duo heads to Hollywood to make their fortune. There, they meet with success as individual performers: Lefty as a walking physical comedy gag and Crabbe as a smoldering romantic hero.
But both feel uneasy about the roles the studio has forced them into. Will they sell out their original vision in favor of an adoring audience and a steady paycheck, or stay true to their own style and talents? (You know what they’re going to choose.)
The dialogue is a pastiche of classic Hollywood, with plenty of knowing winks at the audience. Auxier, Huther and Macchi have fun especially in the naming of things — people like gangster-film star Bananas McFoster, places (“Hunger Strikes: A bowling alley for suffragettes”) and movies such as “Hercules and the Girl Who Don’t Do Nothing.”
Michael Hudgens and Macchi, as Lefty and Crabbe, respectively, have good chemistry together and are instantly endearing. Not so much an odd couple as a one true pairing, they genuinely like each other. This friendship is both the secret to the duo’s success and the heart of the musical.
Each of the other members of the ensemble plays at least five characters each, from the alcoholic studio head Rocksfield (Ellen Kirk) to the starlet-who’s-more-than-just-her-looks Lolo Carmichael (Elise Poehling). Mike Ott stands out as he impressively rattles off Swellington’s mile-a-minute dialogue. Huther drew big laughs as Gene, Lefty and Crabbe’s clueless yet devoted manager.
Regina Weller’s set is simple and versatile; the actors use a movable door for laughs as well as for a tabletop. The music is provided by a single pianist on stage the whole time (Ryan McCall and Eryn Bates), not including an ensemble tune that adds foot-stomp and prop-glass percussion. Nancy Robinson deserves special recognition for the dizzying number of period costumes on display as the actors continually exit as one character (or gender) and enter as a completely different one moments later.
The original songs by Auxier and Huther, all in a ragtimey-jazz style, are as catchy and witty as the songs of the period. Lefty and Crabbe’s team anthem “Thick as Thieves” and the speakeasy song “Forget About It” stand out in particular.
In his introduction, director Rusty Sneary promises the audience pure entertainment, not something that will make your head hurt. “Lefty and Crabbe” is that. But the team is also able to tap into some kind of immediacy — whether it’s the small theater, the local talent or the 1920s nostalgia — that makes this production something to savor.
(And don’t forget to stay for the post-curtain call sequence.)
“The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe” continues through June 18 at the Living Room Theatre, 1818 McGee St. See thelivingroomkc.com or call 816-533-5857.