HELLDRIVERS OF DAYTONA at the Royal George Theatre, Review – Crash and Burn

 

I’ll get right to it, Helldrivers of Daytona, the new pre-Broadway tryout playing at the Royal George Theatre, was downright humiliating. The whole production is totally misguided from the cartoonish direction on down to a completely unnecessary giant video projection screen used as the set. The show itself is amateurish, boring, sexist, and morbidly obscene. Instead of playing around with sexual innuendos, they jam them in your face in the most clichéd and overblown ways you can imagine. Porn would seem tame compared to this trash. There are even disturbing jokes that allude to bestiality, incest, and rape. Even more disgusting are the producers who actually thought jokes like these would be funny in 2016.

 

In the press release the show’s librettist, Marc Saltzman, described Helldrivers as “just big, loud, vulgar, sexy fun”, which translates to, “just straight up bad theatre”. Halfway through Act Two, and literally 26 pages into my notepad, I finally just gave up and wrote down the phrase “what is wrong with humanity?”

 

Ouch is right. What I saw on opening night was totally unacceptable, insulting, and just downright demeaning.

 

James Nedrud (Lucky Stubbs) and Samantha Pauly (Pepper)

 

I respect the hard work that went into this show and, deluded as they are, the creators had good intentions. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to give folks a good laugh. Our society needs it. It just didn’t need to be taken to such extreme places. True satire, especially when it involves sexism, requires an enormous amount of wit and skill, not overt crotch twerking and boob touching.

 

I’m aware that this is a tryout, meaning it’s essentially a rough draft in need of major repairs. Nonetheless, Helldrivers doesn’t just hit the usual speed bumps you’d expect from a new show; it goes steering off in the wrong lane from the start. This show is so broken that it might be better to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch.

 

James Nedrud (Lucky Stubbs) and Samantha Pauly (Pepper)

 

Set at a Daytona Speedway, a blockheaded racer named Lucky Stubbs (James Nedrud) is trying to win the affection of a newly arrived woman, Pepper Johnson (Samantha Pauly). Meanwhile Lucky’s rival driver, Count Porcini Portobello (David Sajewich), plots to get Pepper all to himself as he sets out to destroy Lucky.  That’s the basic plot. There are a bunch of wacky side characters at the speedway with stupid names and pointless plot lines, all of them are annoying and irrelevant, yet they somehow manage to get almost as much stage time as many of the leads. Go figure.

 

Helldrivers satirizes 1960s Elvis-style hot-rod racing movies…. you know, because if anything needs a good spoofing in 2016 it's some random speedway films from 50 years ago… Seriously, we have to know what exactly is being ridiculed in order to make a connection. Unfortunately these films are so old that not a single person I asked during intermission could tell me what they were satirizing (most assumed it was making fun of Grease).

 

Racing films of the ‘60s don’t have large cult followings, most of them are already corny, and although a couple of the movies received award-winning acclaim, such as Grand Prix, they’re not considered to be classics. So why mock something that a majority of modern audiences have no reference to? Without context there’s no point.

 

Samantha Pauly (Pepper) and David Sajewich (Count Portabello Porcini)

 

Helldrivers was developed at the University of Texas Musical Theatre Workshop in Austin. Which, no coincidence, includes the head producer of Helldrivers, Natasha Davidson, on its staff. Guiding the production are two other artists at the Texas Workshop facility: director/choreographer Danny Herman and co-choreographer Rocker Verastique.

 

The show was reportedly staged and workshopped at various other locations in Wyoming, California, and in Skokie as well. How in the world could this show go through that many workshops and be in this bad of shape? The whole thing raises serious concerns about the management and validity of the workshop program at the University of Texas itself. I also have to question the sanity of anyone who actually invested money in this. Yes, it is that bad.

 

David Sajewich (Count Portabello Porcini) and Samantha Pauly (Pepper)

 

Consequently the University Workshop cemented Danny Herman into directing this piece for the Chicago world premiere tryout – an unlucky turn of events as Mr. Herman is the worst possible director they could’ve chosen. He’s a choreographer with absolutely no experience directing satires. And it definitely shows. Literally everything in Helldrivers is uselessly and overtly choreographed, and this includes the dialogue scenes.

 

If Mr. Herman had focused on actual storytelling this might’ve been easier to watch. The flawed direction is evident throughout: The actors move on stage with no motivation other than they were told to. There’s no character development – just stale cartoonish caricatures jumping around. The competition between Lucky and Count Portobello isn’t taken seriously so literally nothing is at stake.

 

Outside of an actual farce, satire is one of the toughest forms of theatre to execute. Despite the ridiculous tone, satire requires greater instances of truth, not less; it needs rules, a grounded foundation, and specifics for us to make a serious connection with. It can be both silly fun and honest at the same time. To prove it just look at Book of Mormon, a musical that is similarly filled with vulgarity and camp, but is grounded in reality with a genuine honesty that makes us connect. All it needs is skilled direction.

 

And, as a side note: does this show really need two choreographers and three dance captains? The dances mostly consist of hip thrusts, step turns, grinding, and whole lot of simulated sex. I mean this is Helldrivers of Daytona after all, not A Chorus Line.

 

James Nedrud (Lucky Stubbs)

 

Not that Mr. Herman had much to work with anyway. Marc Saltzman’s juvenile book lacks the wit required of a true satire. Without the clever writing, Mr. Saltzman’s attempts at mocking the sexism in the ‘60s films only makes this production seem like they’re celebrating them. Since none of it is actually funny it’s hard to know what’s supposed to be a joke and what’s not. Rob Meurer’s offensive lyrics only magnify the problems.

 

Saltzman’s book could’ve easily been written by a group of 12 year boys. It’s pure trash masquerading as humor. We see a character simulate sex with a stuffed animal, another ejaculates in his racer, another correlates the tingly erotic feelings between her thighs to memories of bouncing on her uncle's knee as a child. There’s also an impersonation of Jesus Christ with an erection, a character with a bondage fetish, and a few times Lucky’s genitals sing out loud. And these are only a handful of examples of the “jokes”.

 

Leah Morrow (Laura) and James Nedrud (Lucky Stubbs)

 

Opening night ran for an unending and excruciating two hours and thirty minutes. It felt longer than sitting through The Iceman Cometh. Campy satire, even at its best, wears thin after an hour. This is why a majority of satires, parodies, and farces are one-acts lasting less than 90 minutes. There’s no reason Helldrivers should be this long.

 

Berton Averre’s music isn’t all that bad, in fact it’s my only positive note (finally). It was nice to hear a Beach Boys doo wop sound in a musical for a change (Averre is best known for writing “My Sharona”). You just wish Averre had better writers to work with. Too often it seems that Saltzman has to come up with futile scenes just so there can be a proper setup to justify a useless song number with the dumbest lyrics I’ve ever heard.

 

Claire Lilley (Dee Dee), Rachel Melius (Marylou), Julia Rose Duray (Margaret Ann Olsen), and Leah Morrow (Laura)

 

It’s hard not to feel bad for the talented young actors on stage. Everything about this ill-conceived and poorly “directed” show is totally demeaning to each and every one of them. The show isn’t their fault. Still, it was incredibly painful to watch such great talents like James Nedrud (an actor who has shown tremendous growth over the years) and Samantha Pauly (another fantastic local talent) mimic sex, fondle car headlights, and grope a whole host of other objects.

 

And poor David Sajewich had the most humiliating song in the entire show, “Chevroline”, wherein his character fights possession by the spirit of a murderous young French prostitute.  This was the moment I gave up taking notes. The song was too mortifying to watch. Not because Mr. Sajewich was doing bad work, he was terrific as always, but because I wanted so badly to just throw the guy a life vest so he could save himself.

 

James Nedrud (Lucky Stubbs) and Samantha Pauly (Pepper)

 

The only possible way this show could work as it’s currently written, and this is a huge maybe, is if perhaps it were performed by a bunch of drag queens in a small gay bar with a cabaret setting like Mary’s Attic or Davenports. And preferably with a new director who understands satire and the harm of objectifying women, but lets us in on the jokes and allows it to turn the tables. Then maybe, just maybe, it might be worth it.

 

However, in its current form, as an equity production with tickets as high as $65, this production is a total disgrace. The actors deserve so much better and so do we.

 

Bottom Line: Helldrivers of Daytona is NOT RECOMMENDED. Enough said.

 NO LONGER PLAYING

HELLDRIVERS OF DAYTONA – Royal George Theatre

Photo Credits: Guy Rhodes

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