By Colin Douglas
How did this new musical, with so many talented, creative artists attached to it, make it this far? Purported to be a satire of those 1960 racing car rock-n-roll musicals that starred Elvis Presley and Ann-Margaret, this embarrassment just never reaches the finish line. This show stalls out long before it ever picks up any speed and it should be immediately returned to the garage, at least for a major overhaul or tuneup. What we have now is a head-on collision without any survivors.
And it’s a shame. There’s been so much excitement generated over this project. The creatives involved in the production have great credentials and a proven track record. They include a book by Emmy winner and terrific playwright, Mark Saltzman, a score by Berton Averre of The Knack and lyrics by Rob Meurer of Platinum Records. The show’s topnotch producers are Natasha Davison, attached to the Broadway bound musical, Gotta Dance, and Richard Friedman, General Manager of Theater at the Center and the producer of several popular Mercury and Apollo Theater productions. However, it’s incomprehensible how this musical sunk to this level of abomination, or what went through their collective minds as they were readying this obscene, vulgar, insulting production for its Chicago premiere. But, as Dale Ernhardt said, “You win some, you lose some and your wreck some.” Guess which category applies to this hot mess?
The plot, such as it is, revolves around a hot-to-trot beauty who drives her pink convertible down to Daytona, with the hope of attracting the attention of some handsome race car driver. She’s torn between two options. They’re both good-looking, but very different from each other: the eternally horny, good-ole boy, Lucky, and the smarmy, Euro-trash playboy, Count Porcini Portobello. Amid this messy menage we have Lucky’s pal Pitstop, his former school chum, Margaret Ann, and a bevy of bodacious babes in tight hot pants and low-cut tops: Marylou, DeeDee and Laura. Lucky’s earnest, new pit team is composed of three dimwitted surfer dudes named Kahuna, Horndog and Cardoc. Predictable problems emerge but they’re all neatly solved during this two-and-a-half hour hodgepodge.
This parody has potential, particularly in its basic storyline. Even some of the music is pleasant, but it’s way over-amplified. The backstage band so often overpowers the singers, it makes many of the disgusting lyrics almost inaudible. However, it’s the book that really sinks to the lowest level imaginable, with its insulting, unsavory portrayal of women and its plethora of filthy, sophomoric jokes about various sexual acts and body parts. The lyrics are even worse, featuring songs about orgasms, periods, treating men like dogs and many other topics far worse or unmentionable. Not only is this show demeaning to both genders, it lacks the wit required to make a parody smart or funny. The only way to enjoy this dirty disarray of insanity is to be highly inebriated.
That said, the cast of Equity actors feature some of Chicago’s best. It’s highly unfortunate that their talents are being so wasted in this piece of dramatic dreck. Gorgeous Samantha Pauly (Evita, Hairspray) reminds us what a musical theatre star looks and sounds like, playing nymphette Pepper. James Nedrud (Xanadu, Mary Poppins) is charming, likable and dynamic as Lucky, and handsome heartthrob David Sajewich (All Shook Up, Legally Blonde) is greasy, devious and despicable as the Count. Julia Rose Durray, recently seen in Bat Boy: the Musical, is sweet as Margaret Ann; Andres Enriquez, a standout from The Adding Machine, makes a charismatic Pitstop; and the ensemble, comprised of Rachel Melius, Claire Lilley, Leah Morrow, Trey Curtis, Aaron Davidson and Christopher Selefski, all add their considerable talent to this unfortunate production.
Sometimes when artists work too closely to a project they lose the ability to step away from the material and view it with any objectivity. However, with so many workshops and out-of-town tryouts in its past, one would think that someone would’ve had the guts to point out the sheer offensiveness of this musical. Even the technical support behind this show, a musical that’s hoping to eventually make it to Broadway, is shoddy and unimaginative. The projections are about as inventive as a middle school art project, and costumes, while appropriate for the tone of this seedy show, must’ve been made on a limited fabric budget, at least for the women’s wear. But Kevin Barthel is spot-on with his wig creations. However the portions of refurbished automobiles, used to represent the race cars, are pretty ugly and unseemly, for a production of this caliber. It would seem that a show about racing would have spent more of their budget to create vehicles that would impress the audience.
This is one of the worst pieces of theatre to hit Chicago in recent memory. There’s nothing to recommend it, except maybe for the fine performances of its talented cast. Unfortunately they’re all being wasted in this production, locked in a show that isn’t even worthy of wasted, late night audiences of college frat boys. It’s insulting, embarrassing and a quagmire of squandered creativity.
“Helldrivers of Daytona” is presented through October 30 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.