The Musical
Total Rating: 
June 8, 2017
Hell in a Handbag Productions
Theater Type: 
Mary's Attic
Theater Address: 
5400 North Clark Street
Music: David Cerda and Scott Lamberty. Book and lyrics: David Cerda

Gangland-crime buffs may detect traces of Charles "Lucky" Luciano's arrest in this musical adaptation of the 2010 romp-in-pumps burlesque from Hell in a Handbag productions, just as cinema aficionados may experience vague reminders of the 1937 film-noir classic Marked Woman, but audience members knowing nothing of these events — or even those too young to have heard of the actress named Bette Davis (oh, the tragedy!)—will find this no obstacle to appreciation of the liberties imposed by David Cerda and Scott Lamberty upon their source material.

Our story revolves around a mob-connected brothel employing motherly Estelle, featherbrained Emmy Lou, cokeheaded Gabby, unassertive Ruby and romantic Mary, who retains hopes of escaping her sordid life to make a home for herself and her sheltered baby sister Betty. Today, however, a new boss has arrived — Scarlett Fontanelli, a tough cookie conducting business with an iron fist and a quick dive in the river for any troublemakers. After several innocent victims, including the naive Betty, meet their doom, Mary consents to testify against Scarlett in court, where a number of aliases are exposed and true identities revealed to orchestrate a happy ending for the surviving personnel.

Playgoers of scholarly bent are free to explore these themes for historical commentary on the order of that seen in Factory Theater's recent Born Ready, but the aim of the Hell in a Handbag aesthetic is rowdy and robust mockery hearkening to antiquity at the very dawn of comedy. Cerda's text mimics with keen-witted accuracy the extended metaphors associated with the Raymond Chandler school of hard-boiled repartee and the rat-a-tat delivery made famous by the Warner Brothers Studios canon of social dramas — all of it rendered more ticklish by the numerous drag roles, male and female, incorporated into the casting.

A musical requires music, of course, which Cerda and Lamberty serve tunes in frothy abundance, from the Charleston-tempo "Hostess with the Mostess" (sic) that introduces the sorority of golden-hearted harlots, to the wistful ballad "House on the Hill." The score also encompasses a show-stopping turn by Caitlin Jackson's Gabby on the high-kicking "Flim Flam Floozy," along with dazzling boat-in-the-bottle dance choreography by Steve Love, Kate Seltzer Kamphausen's sleek wardrobe and unflappable stage manager Michelle Kidd at the switchboard on Foley punches.

This review first appeared in Windy City Times, 5/17
Mary Shen Barnidge
Date Reviewed: 
May 2017