Chicago Theatre Review
An Absolute Doozie of a Cast
Hazel – Drury Lane Theatre
Back in the early 1960’s, a no-nonsense, take-charge live-in maid named Hazel Burke burst into American homes every week during five seasons of her televised popular family sitcom. Based on Ted Key’s single panel Saturday Evening Post comic strips, the TV series featured, in the title role, the lovable, multitalented Shirley Booth, a star of stage and screen. While Hazel worked as the Baxter’s maid, the wise, outspoken woman became a friend and confidant while running their home and every aspect of the family’s life.
Lawyer George Baxter, whom Hazel calls “Mr. B,” and his loving wife Dorothy, nicknamed Missy by the maid, are the parents of a young, intelligent son named Harold. It’s around these four characters that this new, Broadway-bound musical revolves. Key always said he could imagine his fictional maid singing, thus inspiring the artistic team of Ron Abel and Chuck Steffan to compose the music and lyrics for Lissa Levin’s script.
In this musicalized version of both the sitcom and comic strip, the show opens with Hazel entering down the aisle, comfortably chatting with audience members and handing out Kleenex, gum and advice. She’s preparing to interview with the Baxters, her prospective new employers. Dorothy Baxter has recently accepted a job at a prestigious interior decorating agency, prompting her to convince her old-fashioned husband that they should hire someone to help out around the house. A woman abandoning her home and family for a career is a very revolutionary concept at this time, especially for the workaholic Mr. Baxter.
Another common 60’s theme woven throughout this musical is the growing fear of a Soviet takeover or, at very least, of the Russians beating us in the race for space. In addition, it’s the era when tacky science fiction films planted the possibility of outer space invasions in the American subconscious. Ms. Levin’s script portrays Harold, along with his three young, intellectually-gifted schoolmates, Scotty, Rueben and Benedetta, as children obsessed with uncovering evidence that aliens are invading their city. While young Harold’s amateur film of a possible UFO goes unnoticed by his parents, it attracts the interest of some Air Force bigwigs. This somewhat farfetched plot merges with the family hiring their new maid, Mrs. Baxter breaking into the workforce and Mr. Baxter trying to win over a new client, an outrageous, wealthy TV celebrity named Bonkers Johnson. The millionaire eventually takes a shine to Hazel and suddenly all kinds of complications develop.
The strength of this new musical is its cast. As Hazel would say, this ensemble of singing/dancing actors is “a doozie!” The production is led by the warm, indomitable talent that is Klea Blackhurst. Fondly remembered for her brassy, Ethel Merman-inspired portrayal of Mama Rose, in Drury Lane’s terrific production of “Gypsy” from a few seasons ago, Ms. Blackhurst is the main reason to catch this new show. Resisting the urge to merely impersonate the television character, this likable actress takes the best of Shirley Booth and tempers it with her own unique talents. Key would’ve been thrilled by this actress because Ms. Blackhurst not only sings like a dream, she creates an honest, enthusiastic woman, whose life’s unselfishly devoted to doing for others, a quality sadly lacking in today’s world. Peppered with folksy advice and gentle homilies, Ms. Blackhurst brings compassion and amiability to Hazel that feels genuine.
Another reason to recommend this production is the quartet of young actors who play Harold and his friends. Sixth grader Casey Lyons brings wide-eyed innocence mixed with gutsy determination to his portrayal of Harold. Protected by his omnipresent astronaut’s helmet, Mr. Lyons grabs hold of his role and plays it with an earnest straightforwardness and maturity that belies his youth. Lyons effortlessly wins over his audience. “Space,” his beautifully sung father-and-son duet, is performed with talented Ken Clark as George Baxter. It demonstrates an impressive, polished musicality that’s hard to forget. Young Tyler Martin and Ava Morse as Scotty and Benedetta are equally terrific, and it’s in their collective, humorous dialogue that Lissa Levin really excels. But it’s Rowan Moxley, as Rueben Steuben, who practically steals the show. His dry, pokerfaced delivery and his unexpected one-liners leave the audience roaring.
Ken Clark and the beautiful, always impressive triple threat Summer Naomi Smart are excellent as the Baxters. Unfortunately, Ms. Levin’s script doesn’t provide these two talented actors with as much to do. Abel and Steffan’s spirited, yet unmemorable score offers a few good moments. Hazel’s opening number, for instance, “Ya Gonna Need Help,” is fun and reminiscent of “Hello Dolly.” Hazel and George engage in a taut, secret wager, “Better Luck Next Time.” George gets an amusing, booze-infused solo number that involves strangely balancing a goldfish in a bowl of water while singing “The First Law of Losing.” George and Dorothy spar in “What’s Best for You” and “That Just Goes to Show;” but Ms. Smart finally gets to dazzle and shine, strutting her stuff in the production number entitled “Sheer Perfection.” Ed Kross, Bill Bannon and, especially, the vivacious Meghan Murphy have fun with their roles as Bonkers Johnson, Sergeant Kreppel and Airman Fillmore. And the entire, hardworking ensemble, under the musical direction of Roberta Duchak and the direction and choreography of Joshua Bergasse are tirelessly terrific and add spunk and sparkle to this show.
Kevin Depinet’s vast, impressionistic scenic design, lit with blazing color by Lee Fiskness and supported by Christopher Ash’s inconspicuous projections are dazzling, if sometimes a little distracting. Sully Ratke and Rick Jarvie’s costumes and wig designs instantly transform the entire cast into undeniable denizens of the swinging 60’s. These two artists particularly excel when transforming Ms. Blackhurst into the audience’s expectation of Hazel.
This isn’t a show that’s going to set new theatrical standards. It’s an old-fashioned book musical, with a sweet story, a generous amount of humor and some pleasant, if unmemorable music. It’s Joshua Bergasse direction and choreography of his exceptionally talented ensemble, a real doozie of a cast, however, that makes this show such an enjoyably entertaining throwback to a more innocent time.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 6-May 29 by Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-530-0111 or by going to www.DruryLaneTheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com