Book, Music, Lyrics: David Cerda. At: Hell in a Handbag Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-975-8150 or www.handbagproductions.org; $18-$37. Runs through July 13
Many of Hell in Handbag Productions' most recent shows have been squeezed within an inch of their lives onto the postage stamp-sized stage of Mary's Attic. At most curtain calls, Hell in a Handbag co-founder David Cerda would solicit donations so that the company could produce their campy drag comedies on a larger scale.
Well, Hell in a Handbag has certainly stepped up its production values at Theater Wit for the revival of its 2006 musical Caged Dames, a pulpy homage to 1940s and '50s women's prison films. And the timing couldn't be more perfect following the second season release of the enormously popular Netflix women's prison series Orange is the New Black.
So Hell in a Handbag deserves kudos for lavishing so much attention and funds on Caged Dames via Zachary Gipson's imposing prison sets, Kate Setzer Kamphausen's appropriately drab costumes ( augmented by the over-the-top wig designs of Jacob Christopher Green ) and Mikey Moran's sturdy sound design. The show is also impressive with a live orchestra led by music director Emily Barrett and a very talented and large cast of characterful male and female performers overseen by director AJ Wright.
Unfortunately, the Caged Dames script and score by David Cerda doesn't always rise to this heightened occasion. Many of Cerda's characters are frustratingly only partially realized, and the overall plot structure leans more toward a series of character sketches and incidents rather than a satisfying story arc centered on the new pregnant prisoner Mary Anderson ( Elizabeth Morgan ). Caged Dames also wears out its welcome, with many scenes in Act II feeling like the end before another meandering scene begins.
Nonetheless, even with a script and score that aren't the tightest, Caged Dames does offer the cast a lot of chances to elicit hearty laughs from Cerda's jokey zingers and oddball characters.
Steve Love, as the incarcerated prostitute Trixie, and Mario Mazzetti, as the sarcastic Typist, offer some impressive performances in the period style that the show is spoofing ( they also look great as dames in drag ). Among the women portraying women, Sydney Genco and Christea Parent respectively have their hard-boiled dame routines worked out right as the criminal Big Lorraine and the prison guard Schnitzy.
Another standout in the show is the combined efforts of Lolly Extract and Amber Marsh for their amazing puppeteer work on Loretta, the ever-loyal prison rat.
As usual, there are drag roles for Hell in a Handbag stalwarts David Cerda as Warden Hope Jenkins and Ed Jones as the sadistic lesbian Matron Elsie Emerson, but they don't stand out as much as they've done in previous Handbag shows.
With Caged Dames, the scale is certainly much larger than usual Hell in a Handbag fare. It's too bad the script wasn't sharpened to match the company's grander ambitions.