Drury Lane's 'Hazel' cooks up laughs amid cluttered plot
Oh, how those Baxters have changed.
Sure, George still wears the pants in the family and Dorothy looks like she took a page out of the Laura Petrie playbook, but the family at the heart of the 1960s sitcom "Hazel" and a previous Saturday Evening Post comic gets a few contemporary tweaks in "Hazel, A Musical Maid in America," in its world premiere at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace. Mom Dorothy's stashing Valium, for one thing. And she wants to work outside the home -- much to the dismay of her tightly wound, guilt-inducing husband.
That's the central conflict in "Hazel," which starts out with a comic bang, glides pleasantly along on "A Christmas Story"-style nostalgia and then trips on its overstuffed script.
Klea Blackhurst stars as Hazel, and she wins overs audiences from the moment she strolls down the theater aisle offering folksy tips, passing out Kleenex and spewing witty one-liners. "Ya Gonna Need Help," she belts out in the opening number, and that's certainly true of the family she's about to meet.
Lawyer George Baxter (Ken Clark) resents his wife's decision to work. He's convinced Dorothy (Summer Naomi Smart) won't last two weeks in the work world, and he even bets against her with a more confident Hazel, who needs Dorothy to succeed or she'll be out of a job.
So the wisecracking, meddling maid does whatever she can to make it work. She starts by gathering family intel around the Baxter home. It's not snooping, she insists: "It's research."
Hazel runs up against a challenge in winning over the Baxter's misfit son Harold (Casey Lyons), a UFO-obsessed 8-year-old who refuses to take off his spaceman's helmet. Harold and his pals (Rowan Moxley, Ava Morse and Tyler Martin) have recorded footage of what they think is a spaceship and are convinced the new maid is an alien.
More complications arise in the musical, which features music by Ron Abel, lyrics by Chuck Steffan and a book by Lissa Levin. First there's the wealthy entrepreneur Bonkers Johnson (Ed Kross), whom George must win over as a client. Then there's an Air Force group, looking into the whole UFO thing.
It all gets to be too much, especially in the second act. At its core, the musical is about a family facing change -- a father worried about becoming obsolete, a mother torn by conflicting desires, a boy unable to fit in, and the meddling maid out to set their world right. A strained, improbable romantic subplot for Hazel and a posse of government types just muddy the waters.
Distractions abound, and in the end George's transformation feels forced and unearned.
Still, Drury Lane's production has -- as Hazel herself would say -- a doozy of a cast, directed by Joshua Bergasse.
Klea Blackhurst as Hazel is a true force -- funny, warm and utterly beguiling. She walks a fine line stepping into a role made famous by Shirley Booth, and she manages to capture the best of Booth while making Hazel her own. The rest of the cast is strong as well: Summer Naomi Smart sizzles in her workplace song number, and Ed Kross mines the aptly named Bonkers for every eccentricity.
Scenes between the four kids are a delight. Drury Lane hit the jackpot with these pint-size scene-stealers -- especially the sweet-voiced Lyons. As the kids run about with walkie-talkies, it's hard not to lament how much nicer it is to see grade-schoolers conjure aliens in their imaginations rather than blast them to bits in video games.
For the most part, "Hazel" does a good job of capturing the look of the era. Kevin Depinet's set bursts with period details, from the avocado-colored appliances in the Baxter kitchen to the mod-patterned wallpaper. That said, some of the dialogue, plot points and even a chest bump seem out of place in a comedy set a half century ago.
"Hazel" shows promise. But like a cluttered kitchen pantry, it needs a bit of purging.
"Hazel, A Musical Maid in America"★ ★ ★
Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111, drurylanetheatre.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday (3 and 7 p.m. May 8); through May 29
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with intermission
Parking: Free lot
Rating: Largely for general audiences