Review: “Once in a Lifetime” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

Michael Dailey, Scott Danielson, and Kat McDonnell/Photo: Tom McGrath
Michael Dailey, Scott Danielson, and Kat McDonnell/Photo: Tom McGrath

Show: Once in a Lifetime

Company: Strawdog Theatre

Venue: Strawdog Theatre

Die Roll: 8

Generally, I am a bit saddened by the fact that Strawdog Theatre will no longer be a mainstay of the Northeast corner of Lakeview anymore.  When their current show closes, that will be that.  They will return to the ranks of itinerant companies here in Chicago.  Granted, unlike most itinerant groups that often struggle to find places for their shows, Strawdog landed on their feet as a temporary resident company of the new Factory stage in Rogers Park next to the Howard Red Line stop.  That’s where they’ll be doing their good works starting next season.

In the meantime, they are offering a comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.  “Once in a Lifetime” is not the classic that Kaufman & Hart’s collaboration brought us with “You Can’t Take It With You”, but it is a solid comedic play about the birth of Hollywood and the rise of the studio system in the days of the talkies (read: late 1920s/early 1930s).  The play was written in 1930, just three years after Al Jolson’s “Jazz Singer” made its debut.  So, at the time it was a very topical lampooning of the show business industry.  Now, it amounts to a bit of dated nostalgia that is fun to revisit, but isn’t really pushing any boundaries.

Perhaps that is the point in doing the show at this time in Strawdog’s trajectory.  It is fun to look nostalgically at something that has a relevant past, which may not be currently pushing any boundaries, but will also endure for many years to come.

Scott Danielson, Kat McDonnell, and Michael Dailey/Photo: Tom McGrath
Scott Danielson, Kat McDonnell, and Michael Dailey/Photo: Tom McGrath

Damon Kiely puts together a show that is very sharp in its presentation.  Every bit of every moment is precisely choreographed, not only the scenes, but the scene changes, too.  While the action of the play takes place in the 1920s, the soundtrack for this production is anachronistically lodged firmly in the years between 2009 through 2011 (although one of the songs, “When I’m Gone”, is actually originally from 1930 despite being recently popularized by Anna Kendrick’s recording).

All of the music is performed by the acting ensemble to cover the transitions between the scenes.  They become a vaudevillian olio which ia just as much of the action of the production as the real scenes themselves.  And, in a fun/snarky way, they often comment on the action of the show.  The aforementioned “When I’m Gone” comes as one major character, May (Kathleen McDonnell), moves on to the next part of her life.

Scott Danielson and Kat McDonnell/Photo: Tom McGrath

Mike Dailey and Scott Danielson round out the play’s primary roles as Jerry and George, respectively.  Along with May, Jerry and George go from being two-bit Vaudevillians at the tail end of a not-too-promising career, to running an elocution school for actors in California. A ridiculously large set of characters cross their paths and the stage, and they are played by a creatively capable cast that embraces the variety with gusto.  Every member of this cast was perfectly suited for their roles, but the two who I feel I must hold up to celebrate are Anderson Lawfer and Michaela Petro.  One of the best things about this play was to see what these two actors would come onstage as next.  Sure, they played a couple of has-been starlets who couldn’t effectively make it in the new days of films with sound, but they also made a gaggle of other oddball characters come alive, often for just one cross lasting 20 seconds or less.  It is a cool thing to watch actors who can create characters for quickly and fully.

As the play comes to an end, there is a rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” which seems to be staged to represent the impending destruction of the building wherein this production takes place.  It’s one bit of contemporary comment sneaked into a show that otherwise is an intriguing hodgepodge of old and not-so-old nostalgic performances that pay homage to what has been a solid run on Chicago’s own Broadway.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Fitting end for old venue.  Well executed.  Fluffy, inane fun.

DICE RATING: d12 — “Heckuva Good Show”