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Regional Reviews: Chicago

Hazel: A Musical Maid in America
Drury Lane Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's recent review of Mary Page Marlowe


Klea Blackhurst and Cast
Photo by Brett Beiner
If there's one thing this new musical proves, it's that its star, Klea Blackhurst, who in the past has sometimes exploited her vocal resemblance to Ethel Merman, deserves a role made just for her. We last saw her in Chicago as Rose in Drury Lane Theatre's Gypsy and noted what a good stand-in she was for Merman in that iconic role. As the title character in this new musical with Broadway aspirations, in a world premiere production at Drury Lane, she again follows in the footsteps of another legendary actress, Shirley Booth, who played the titular maid on TV from 1961-1966. While it's been years since I've seen any episodes of that series, I'll still contend that Blackhurst gives a new face to the character—softer, sweeter and more gently ironic.

Blackhurst proves to be a delightful comedienne as well as a knockout singer. Whether interacting with the audience or doing scenes with her castmates, she's always a pleasure to watch. And to listen to. Sure, she has that Merman power and clarity, but with more control and expressiveness. When Blackhurst is onstage, just being Hazel—the smartest person in the room who offers advice and solves the problems of her employers without regard to tact or awareness that her advice is unsolicited and not always appreciated—the show is a lot of fun.

Granted, there are challenges in taking a property that began as a single-panel comic strip and turning it into a 2-1/2 hour musical. How do you sustain the heart of this creation, which in the comics was usually Hazel making wry comments on messy situations, and turn it into a full-length piece? The TV series had an easier go of that by only having to come up with 23 minutes of material per episode. Here, bookwriter Lissa Levin, while coming up with a good number of funny quips in the spirit of the comic, has added in a whole bunch of stuff that isn't nearly as funny.

The story is set as Hazel first comes to work for the Baxters, on the occasion of Dorothy Baxter's return to the workforce. The Baxters have multiple challenges facing them: husband George's disapproval of Dorothy working outside the home, George's wooing of a new client for his law practice and son Harold's insistence on wearing a space helmet all the time. Hazel wins a shot at this job by secretly betting George that Dorothy will keep her new position for more than two weeks while George bets she won't. In the meantime, Harold's fascination with space leads him to believe he's seen a UFO. His finding is reported on TV, which leads a secret agency of the US Military to investigate. Concurrently, George's new client prospect "Bonkers" Johnson, a retailer with an insane TV persona รก la New York's legendary "Crazy Eddie," decides on short notice to visit the Baxter home for dinner—on Dorothy's first day in the new job.

Plot threads and themes abound. With the story set in 1965, we see the beginnings of feminism, America's fascination with space exploration, the rise of UFO sightings, and conspiracy theories. There's a whole plethora of characters who, while competently performed, are not nearly as funny as Blackhurst's Hazel. Ed Kross does yeoman's work as Bonkers, but TV pitchmen of that mold were parodies of themselves to begin with—there's not much gold to mined from parodying them further. We have a cute kid in Casey Lyons's Harold and some funny bits from his similarly space-obsessed pals—the too-smart Benedetta Bomicino (Ava Morse) and the nerdy but sexually precocious Reuben Steuben (Rowan Moxley)—but they take up a lot of stage time and seem to come from a different show. The kids are investigated by a bumbling male army officer (Bill Bannon) and a voluptuous female one (Meghan Murphy)—stock characters who further take up time that might better be spent with the Baxter family.

As the Baxters, we have two wonderful musical theater performers who ought to have more to do—especially more singing. Ken Clark's George is shown here to be largely unlikable, a bit of a sexist and impatient with little Harold, but Clark's singing voice is sterling. As Dorothy, we're treated to the work of Summer Naomi Smart, who has become a sort of Chicago counterpart to New York's Kelli O'Hara and deservedly so. Her warm stage presence, golden and distinctive voice, and physical beauty all make her the go-to romantic leading lady. These two have the skills to deliver both the musical and comic demands of a musical comedy and we wish there were more and better material for them to deliver. The score with music by Ron Abel and lyrics by Chuck Steffan is fairly generic and monotonously up-tempo.

The musical is directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, who did the dances for TV's "Smash" and the recent Broadway revival of On the Town, and he gives the project an energetic and glossy tone. His dances here have a neo-Golden Age style in keeping with the story's 1965 setting and they are executed with great precision by a top-flight ensemble. Kevin Depinet's stunningly flashy set includes a square and lights upstage with a very mid-century frame rolled on and off for the Baxters' modestly upscale suburban home. The 1965 look is further established in a palette of soft pastels, so popular in that era, employed by the spot-on costumes of Sully Ratke and the bright lighting design of Lee Friskness. A pastiche of the sort of interstitial music between scenes in '60s TV sitcoms (you know the sound—strings and muted horns playing short, pleasant phrases) completes the package in nailing time and place.

The writers are trying too hard, though, and seem to lack confidence in their basic source material. It makes sense to keep the story in the 1960s, given the changes in society today that make employment of maids inconceivable for most of us, but the gist of Hazel has always been her relationship to her employer family. There's probably room for some comment on the 1960s from today's perspective, but we came to see Hazel one-up "Mr. B." There may be a case for a musical about Hazel the maid, but this one doesn't make it.

Hazel: A Musical Maid in America will play the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, through May 20, 2016. For ticket information, visit www.DruryLaneTheatre.com or call 630-530-0111.


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