By Barry Reszel
With last summer’s acclaimed Beaches apparently (and appropriately) merely biding time in the Broadway queue, Drury Lane Theatre’s creative team hopes for a similar fate for this spring’s re-imagination of another beloved title, Hazel.
What it might be finding out is that feature films are easier to turn into professional stage productions than are classic TV shows. Indeed Drury’s world premiere of Hazel, A Musical Maid in America, illustrates kitsch that may have worked in a 1960s half-hour sitcom doesn’t always transfer well to a full-length musical 60 years removed from the original material. (Full information about characters and the TV series may be read here.)
Based on a Saturday Evening Post cartoon turned into a 1960s TV comedy series starring Shirley Booth, Hazel Burke is an outspoken, independent, saucy maid “with a wry sense of humor, timeless wisdom and a heart of gold.” The very best thing about Director/Choreographer Joshua Bergasse‘s musical production is casting Klea Blackhurst in the iconic role to deliver all that sauce expected by true fans of the character. She breaks the theatrical fourth wall, conversing with patrons and orchestra Conductor Alan Bukowiecki, while effortlessly sacheting her way through a labyrinth of purportedly comic plot twists and musical numbers.
Easy for her. But not so much for the audience.
Unfortunately, the book by Lissa Levin includes just too many absurdities to digest in a single sitting. While any one of them might make for a decent “suspend your disbelief” half hour of family television, together they come off as contrived, discombobulated slapstick that’s simply not very funny or entertaining.
The easy to follow plot centers around a middle-aged maid starting a new job with a family where the wife decides to work, against her husband’s wishes. That’s all fine. But add a UFO sighting and involve the Air Force. Plug in a wacky billionaire potential client who invites himself to dinner on the maid’s first day and then falls in love with her. Oh, and have him arrive early, send the maid to the supermarket (its grand opening, no less) for beef wellington fixings. Get the dad sauced and have the wife need to work late, too. Enough said.
Like the story, Hazel‘s songbook is similarly uninspiring. The exceptions are the splendid back-to-back numbers in the second act, Hazel’s tender reprise of “A Part ‘a Me,” and George and Dorothy Baxter’s, “That Just Goes to Show,” the second of which, unfortunately, abruptly cuts off a nice reconciliation by the couple after an argument.
One might argue the show has promise because of Blackhurst’s impeccable characterization. That could have merit if some of the insipid plot structure (the Air Force buffoons investigating the kids’ UFO sighting, for example) and characterization (Ken Clark as George Baxter evokes a “wonder if he’s abusive” feeling about his relationships with his wife and son) are massaged. But in truth, the list of necessary fixes to turn this production into something Broadway-worthy seems lengthy.
The good news (an evening of musical theatre always has some good news) is that the reliable professionalism found at Chicagoland’s top houses across all facets of musical theatre production is again present here.
Choreography is well paced, interesting and terrifically executed by a highly energetic cast. Lovely leading lady Summer Naomi Smart‘s (Dorothy Baxter) solo song and dance performance, “Sheer Perfection,” is that, even if the song isn’t. The cadre of kids led by Casey Lyons as Harold Baxter is excellent. Ed Cross is a terrific comic actor. Kevin Depinet‘s set and Sully Ratke‘s costumes are truly top-notch, as is Bergasse’s professional orchestra.
Kudos to Drury Lane and all the Chicagoland houses developing new works. It’s just too bad this Hazel is such a mess.
Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, presents “Hazel, A Musical Maid in America” through May 29. Tickets ($45 – $60 with some discounted tickets available) are available by phone at 630-530-0111 or online here.