Chicago Theatre Review
Singing! Dancing! Murder!
Lady X – Hell in a Handbag
Pitch your tents on Clark and Balmoral because it’s time to enjoy some high Camp. David Cerda’s new musical adaptation of his own popular 2010 play is one of his absolute best scripts. The show boasts more than a dozen original songs, composed by Mr. Cerda and Scott Lamberty, and sung and danced with style and punch by an adroitly accomplished company of 14 actors. This doesn’t even take into account the energetic brilliance of this sensational production, co-directed and choreographed by the wickedly talented team of Steve Love and Tommy Bullington. This musical, that spoofs the pulpy crime melodramas of the 1930’s and 40’s starts off with a bang and never lets up until its high-stepping finale.
The plot is so full of twists, turns and double-crosses that it’s almost impossible to provide very many details without giving away all the fun. Suffice it say that the story is about a group of debauched dames who work as “escorts” at a seedy Chicago nightclub during the gangster era. This bevy of babes is led by Mary Dwight and her cronies, Gabby, Emmy Lou, Ruby and the more mature Estelle. The former club owner has been violently murdered prior to the beginning of the play, but his tough-as-nails sister, Scarlet Fontanelli, and her brawny bodyguard, Ape, descend to take charge. These two power hungry toughs will stop at nothing to gain the top position in underworld crime.
David Cerda is hilarious and larger than life starring as Scarlet. Decked out in her signature Joan Crawford-esque wig and gloriously costumed in shades of red, Cerda strides the tiny stage oozing with take-charge confidence and maniacal menace. The actor/director/writer/composer has been playing this kind of stereotypical role for years and he shows no sign of slowing down, thank goodness. Once again Mr. Cerda is brilliantly bawdy and eternally entertaining.
A stellar performance in the style of all those pulp fiction-based dramas of the Depression Era, Christea Parent is fantastic as Mary Dwight. Her performance borrows heavily from the vocal style and studied mannerisms of Barbara Stanwyck, but her characterization is strictly, uniquely her own. This actress is the whole package, all singing, dancing and acting with hilariously hammy histrionics. The always arresting Ed Jones, as Estelle, is once again a complete delight in this production. Jones, channeling both Mae West and Gloria Swanson, brings his trademark exaggerated wide-eyed innocence to an aging chorine who’s secretly in a May/December romance with young Val, played with boyish enthusiasm by another Handbag regular, handsome Chazie Bly. Their duet, “A Lovely Pair,” is funny and filled with double entendres.
Phenomenal actress and singer Caitlin Jackson, who brought her brassy vocal talents to “Bette, LIVE at the Continental Baths,” is Gabby, a bombastic, Betty Grable-style performer. Her big production number, “Flim Flam Floozy,” is one of several real showstoppers in this production. Ruby, as played by Sydney Genco, has a squeaky little Betty Boop voice, but this femme fatale is both sweet and salty. As Emmy Lou, Elizabeth Lesinski is a Jean Harlow-like vamp, with all the right moves, angles and lines. And director Steve Love steps onto the stage to co-star as Betty Dwight, Mary’s naive kid sister. A young Marilyn Monroe-inspired innocent, Mr. Love is wonderful as this tap-dancing, wide-eyed girl brimming with wonder and slowly descending into the vile pit of vipers surrounding her.
The men in this musical are played by just a few actors. Chazie Bly not only plays Val, he’s also Casey, a newsboy and the court bailiff. Laura Coleman is very funny as Frank Gorham, the attorney with her own secret backstory. Adrian Hadlock nicely portrays Crandall, Louie and the Judge, while Michael Hampton is all muscle and mayhem as Ape. Michael S. Miller plays Gordon, as well as several other gentlemen, and Josh Kemper is a welcome face (after playing Scaggy in “Skooby Don’t”), returning here to play both Sheldon and Ralph.
A special nod to Roger Wykes for creating one of the best scenic designs ever seen on the intimate stage at Mary’s Attic. Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s pretty, period costumes, Keith Ryan’s well-coiffed wigs and Sydney Genco’s stylized makeup designs complete the professionally polished look of this parody.
This is hands down one of the best productions ever produced by Hell in a Handbag, and that’s saying a lot. Almost every show from this company is campy, hilarious and full of sass and satire. But David Cerda’s latest creation offers a slick, stylish entertainment that’s flavored with adult humor and situations, but which never veers into tastelessness. Cerda skewers a time period and a genre that seems to especially speak to him and makes it breathe with over-the-top performances and comedy. It’s a show fill with fun, singing, dancing and murder!
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 21-June 8 by Hell in a Handbag Productions at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark St., Chicago.
Tickets are available at the door, by calling 800-838-3006 or by going to www.handbagproductions.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.