Chicago, fasten your seat belts—the world premiere musical HELLDRIVERS OF DAYTONA has parked at the Royal George Theatre…and it’s a bumpy, messy ride. Billed as a spoof of 1960s racing films, composer Berton Averre (known for “My Sharona”), lyricist Rob Meurer, and book writer Mark Saltzman have developed a show that’s entirely too on the nose. HELLDRIVERS lacks the satirical tone it seeks; instead, the first act replaces the sexual repression common in those 1960s movies with blatant, unoriginal sexual innuendoes and jokes in poor taste. Though conceived as an ironic take on the movies of that era, HELLDRIVERS feels overall cringe-worthy in the first act. The show shifts gears in the second act to focus more on sending up a number of great American musicals (and one Billy Joel song). The overall experience is erratic.
HELLDRIVERS follows Daytona speed racer Lucky Stubbs who falls for the new girl in town, Pepper. She’s hoping to meet a rich, international racer–whom she finds in the likes of Count Porcini Portobelo. Along the way, we meet Lucky’s beach bum crew workers, his manager Pitstop, and a quartet of speedway groupies.
The outsized, caricatured personalities in HELLDRIVERS certainly don’t help to smooth the show’s flaws. The gender roles are hopelessly two-dimensional, and not in a way that feels ironic. Numbers such as “Little Lucky” and “Pretending” convey that the male characters think with a part of their body other than their brains, while the song “Teenage Dream,” in which three female racing fans share their awkward teenage fetishes, feels wildly inappropriate.
When the tone of the show switches in the second act, we fortunately find some entertaining and better constructed moments. Lucky’s song of determination “Win When You Lose” has the right style for a modern rock musical. “You’re The One For Me,” in which the speedway fans and the beach bums find a connection, is genuinely satirical and clever. This song has the tone to which the entire musical should aspire but never again comes close. And while it’s a solid number, it’s still important to point out that the disturbing “Teenage Dream” provides the set up.
As messy as HELLDRIVERS feels, the actors are fully committed and do all they can with the material. James Nedrud has a delivery that channels the confidence of Conrad Birdie with an edge, and his vocals are expert. Samantha Pauly is not afraid to be outsized and campy as Pepper. As the Count, David Sajewich fully owns the ridiculous demands of his character and does not shy away from some uncomfortable moments in the script. As the speedway groupies, Rachel Melius, Leah Morrow, Claire Lilley, and Julia Rose Duray display formidable comedic chops and lovely vocals. The beach bums (Trey Curtis, Aaron M. Davidson, and Chris Selefski) harmonize beautifully. And Curtis has the strongest comedic timing of the bunch, particularly in “You’re The One for Me.” I greatly admire this company for their dedication to this show, and they do fine work with Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique’s choreography (Herman also directs).
In terms of design values, HELLDRIVERS treads shakier ground. Scott Adam Davis’s simplistic set design incorporates rather tacky projections (by Ross Hoppe) that sadly do little to elevate the tone of the script. While Brenda Winstead’s costumes read very 1960s, they also wholeheartedly reinforce the show’s problematic gender depictions–the women wear incredibly skimpy clothes throughout.
Because this show focuses on race car drivers, you may also be wondering if HELLDRIVERS solves the problem of racing onstage. Unfortunately, it does not. The set incorporates strange car fronts that the actors are forced to manipulate manually, which makes the final (and only) racing sequence rather anti-climactic.
While HELLDRIVERS OF DAYTONA had the potential to be a legitimately fun and entertaining evening, this show doesn’t win the race.
HELLDRIVERS OF DAYTONA plays the Royal George Theatre, 1641 North Halsted, through October 30. Tickets are $55-$65 and may be purchased online at Ticketmaster.com, by phone at 312.988.9000, or in-person at the box office.
Photo by Guy Rhodes
Read the original review on BroadwayWorld.com.