At the Royal George Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago–To begin on a limited positive note, “Helldrivers of Daytona” at the Royal George Theatre has a couple of good songs in the second act, one winning performance, and plenty of energy from a young 11-member ensemble. Otherwise, the news is pretty glum.
The show is a rock musical about stock car racing in 1965. Except that there isn’t any racing until the final scene. Until then the show offers a mash-up of shrill singing, one-dimensional characters, sophomoric attempts at double entendre humor, and a storyline of teeth-grinding silliness. At 2½ hours, “Helldrivers” is at least 20 minutes too long (at a minimum three musical numbers could be nominated for deletion to tighten up the evening).
The show introduces us to Lucky Stubbs, a good old boy hunk who pines to win a stock car race at the famous Daytona Speedway that would lay the foundation for a racing empire. Lucky isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but he does exert a powerful sexual attraction on the female gender.
Photo Credit: Guy Hughes
The plot mostly centers on a relationship between Lucky and Pepper, a young woman from New Jersey who also has libido issues. Their romance would be improbable under the best of circumstances, but the absence of any chemistry between the performers playing the couple is a drag on any romantic credibility.
Lucky faces a o problem. He doesn’t have the money to enter the Daytona race. Pepper owns a valuable car that could bankroll Lucky’s entry fees if only she could be persuaded to sell it and donate the cash to his racing career. On this slender reed of a plot line the show goes back and forth, Pepper final selling the car and allowing Lucky to enter the race. The race is portrayed in an onstage duel between an Italian race driver, which is the show’s villain, and our hero (no other cars in this major race?). The musical concludes with an ostentatiously ludicrous set of happy endings with everyone on stage except the Italian paired off with a mate.
The supporting characters consist of Pitstop, who is Lucky’s manager, Lucky’s three surfer buddies, and a covey of cute young ladies in skimpy wearing apparel who try mightly to be raunchy. The Italian driver, named Count Porcini Portobello, is one of the most unpleasant and overplayed comic bad guys I can recall on a professional stage.
Amid the carnage there is quality work from Julia Rose Duray as a nerdy girl from New Jersey who has nursed a yen for Pitstop since their high school days and follows him down to Daytona, hoping for the best. Duray has the show’s best moment in a fiery number called “Becoming a Woman” that is a rant of resentment against how life’s problems are stacked against women in their relations with men. The lyrics are witty and her performance is a snarl of indignation that will delight feminists in the audience as well as anyone who enjoys a cleverly worded song presented with high-octane passion. That number was preceded “Win When you Lose,” an intelligent exploration of how one can be improved in life even when losing.
Photo Credit: Guy Hughes
In fairness to the performers, it’s difficult to assess their acting skills with so much substandard material to work with. And it may be an imbalance in the sound system that ratcheted up the female singers to a near caterwauling level. I had trouble understanding many of the lyrics and even some of the dialogue and I was sitting in the first row. Overall, the production values were pretty rock bottom.
The show’s creators are trying to lampoon the campy beach blanket and car racing movies of the 1960’s. But to mock effectively, one should be better than the original subject and “Helldrivers of Daytona” is merely a part of a lamentable tradition, not a satiric improvement. I’m all for sex and vulgarity in a musical, but they should be garnished by wit (and not lowest brow phallic jokes) and characters we can care abut, at least a little bit. Ah well, nobody sets out to create a bad show and I’m sure everyone involved in “Helldrivers of Daytona” is a nice person. But their musical doesn’t work.
“Helldrivers of Daytona” is running through October 30 at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted Street. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $55 to $65. Visit www.ticketmaster.com or call 312 988 9000.
The show gets a rating of 1½ stars. September 2016
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