SR review: “The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe” at Underscore Theatre Company

Underscore’s garrulous musical comedy is stuffed with gags but light on genuine feeling

Kyle Ryan and Shea Pender, center, with the ensemble of The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe

Underscore’s garrulous musical comedy is stuffed with gags but light on genuine feeling

Theater review by Kris Vire

Underscore Theatre Company, a young, non-Equity group dedicated to developing and producing new musicals, has some real momentum behind it right now. Last year, it christened its own permanent performance space, in an Uptown storefront dubbed the Understudy; last week, it took home its first Jeff Award for a new musical for last summer’s long run of Haymarket. (I can’t find the commenter to credit for this observation after my Chicago magazine piece last week, but it is kind of fascinating that a show about the crucial role of labor unions won the award for best non-union musical.)

The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe, then, which opened Tuesday night at the Understudy, is a reminder that they can’t all be hits—or at least they can’t always be fully formed by opening night. This breakneck-paced comedy about a vaudeville duo that struggles to find a foothold in Hollywood has moments of promise, but at present they’re mostly submerged in a sea of competing bits.

From left: Katy Campbell, Shea Pender and Natalie Rae with the cast of The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe

Lefty & Crabbe was developed and first produced at Kansas City’s Living Room Theatre before making its way to Chicago as part of Underscore’s 2018 Chicago Musical Theatre Festival; much of the cast and production team for the 2019 full production appear to be holdovers from KC as well. Two of the show’s three authors, Ben Auxier and Brian Huther, play supporting roles in the cast.

Kyle Ryan and Shea Pender, as the title duo, bring strong natural charisma to the stage—individually, at least; we never really get a glimpse of how their team act might have played. The other eight actors who seem to always be crowding the Understudy’s cramped stage portray dozens of characters, but only a handful make more than a whisper of an impression.

From left: Katy Campbell, Brian Huther, Stephanie Boyd, Kyle Ryan, Shea Pender, Reagan Pender, Ben Auxier and Elisabeth Del Toro in The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe

One of those few is Huther’s endearingly nebbishy Gene, who lands more on the force of Huther’s own weirdo energy than on actual character development. The rest of the cast, along with director Rusty Sneary, frequently mistakes volume for comedy. The show is powered by a labored, frequently anachronistic silliness, while Huther and Auxier’s score is occasionally catchy but don’t embrace anything approaching a particular musical idiom—none of their songs reference any other one of their songs, let alone anything period– or genre-specific.

The vibe, ultimately, is that of an insular college improv troupe, its members more invested in goofing on each other than giving much to its audience. It’s an eight-hour drive from Kansas City to Chicago; you might have expected Lefty & Crabbe to have better prepared for the trip.  

The Ballad of Lefty & Crabbe

Underscore Theatre Company (4609 N Clark St). Book by Ben Auxier, Brian Huther & Seth Macchi. Music and lyrics by Ben Auxier & Brian Huther. Directed by Rusty Sneary. Music direction by Ryan McCall. Choreography by Jenna Schoppe

Cast: Kyle Ryan (Theodore “Lefty” Childs), Shea Pender (James “Crabbe” Hathaway), Ben Auxier (Mac Lloyd/ensemble), Brian Huther (Gene Sherman/ensemble), Mike Ott (E.G. Swellington/ensemble), Stephanie Boyd (Mr. Rocksfeld/ensemble), Elisabeth Del Toro (Lolo Carmichael/ensemble), Natalie Rae (Evelyn Rose/ensemble), Katy Campbell (Geraldine/ensemble), Reagan Pender (Boris/ensemble).

Designers: Nicholas Schwartz (scenic), Christina Leinicke (costumes), Benjamin Carne (lighting), Robert Hornbostel (sound), Shawnna Journagan (props), Rachel Elise Johnson (wigs & hair).

Running time: 2 hours; one intermission. Through July 14. Tickets ($20–$25) at

Photographs by Evan Hanover.

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