Title: Sons of Hollywood. Playwright: Carl Menninger and Barry Ball
At: Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd. Tickets: $55-$75; www.WindyCityPlayhouse.com . Runs through: April 16
If you google video clips of the seminal 1925 film Ben-Hur, you already know Ramon Novarro was every bit as hot as his publicity claimed, and if you've read the tell-all book Hollywood Babylon, you already know the tabloid gossip surrounding his unseemly death. If you're wise to the making of sausage and movies, however, you also know that there's a broken heart for every carefully cultivated palm tree on Sunset Boulevard.
It wasn't lack of talent that toppled the born-to-privilege Latino luminary from his pedestal and banished his bestie and popular rom-com bachelor William Haines to a civilian career, while sparing girlfriend and de facto "beard" Lucille LeSueur (whose personae transitioned from high-kicking flappers to tragic matrons after changing her name to Joan Crawford). No, the recognition bestowed by co-authors Carl Menninger and Barry Ball in their "play with music" is that extended to martyrs of homophobic bigotry.
When motion pictures were mere novelties providing brief ribald merriment, their irreverence could be tolerated as harmless vulgarity, but the fallout from WW I and the 1929 crash of the stock market ushered in an era of atonement, reflected in the so-called Hays Code adopted by the major studiosa performative proscription forswearing images of antisocial behavior, not only in their products, but in their hiring practices as well. After surviving the trend toward sound pictures, actors of same-sex proclivities now found themselves forced to feign allegiance to wholesome social practices or risk losing their jobs.
When your story's setting is the very heart of the land where fantasies bloom like patently artificial flowers, it's only logical for its motifs to figure in its narration. Unlike bona fide musicals, where characters soliloquize in song, Menninger and Ball locate us with popular tunes from the perioda cabaret revue in a gay club, for example, featuring a satirical ditty mocking gender-fluid fashions ("Knickers and trousers, baggy and wide/Nobody knows who's walking inside")along with original compositions invoking the nostalgic myth of tinseltown.
Adam Jennings, Trey DeLuna and Abby Lee win our support immediately as the trio of boon companions, although the heaviest lifting falls to Jennings' Billy and Lee's Lucille/Joan as they strive in vain to rescue their fragile comrade (played with Byronesque melancholy by DeLuna) from the recklessness that would prove his final undoing. They are assisted by a protean quintet portraying an abundance of peripheral aiders, abettors and adversaries. Director David H. Bell keeps a tight rein on the production's many moving parts spread over Windy City Playhouse's arena-sized storefront (including a spectacular beat-down choreographed by Max Fabian and lit in Caravaggio chiaroscuro by Anthony Forchielli) to deliver a bittersweet homage to deserving heroes in the long struggle for tolerance and compassion.
Oh, and if you still believe in fairies and West Coast dreams, think what a Hollywood budget could do with such a theme in 2022!