Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman
I went into opening night of the pre-Broadway tryout of Boop! without any idea what the play would be about. I mean: I knew that Betty Boop was the main character of a series of cartoon shorts in the 30s, but I had never really paid much attention to them and had no clue what this new musical was going to do with her. It turns out that Max Fleisher’s Betty Boop has a whole lot of similarities to Mattel’s Barbie: both are highly sexualized versions of women; despite this, both have become accidental feminist icons, having had more careers than any one person (or in Barbie’s case a stadium full of people) could possibly have; and both, in 2023, found themselves leading musicals that sent them from protected cartoon lives manufactured just for them into the Real World, where things are…very different.
A major difference, though: Barbie’s trip to the real world is a rather disillusioning one, whereas, in this new musical by David Foster, Bob Martin, and Susan Birkenhead (which is an absolute breath of fresh air), Betty’s eyes are opened in mostly very positive ways as she discovers things that were missing from her two-dimensional, black and white universe: among other things, friendship, colors, and love.
Jasmine Amy Rogers delivers the most joyful and uplifting performance of the decade as Betty, whose free spirit (and Fleischer’s sense of silliness) leads her, in various shorts, to play many different roles including a circus performer, a race car driver, and even a candidate for the presidency. (Boop! has fun with this in its opening number, “A Little Versatility.”) The character may have been created as a perfect male-gaze sex symbol—a sixteen-year-old, baby-faced flapper girl fending off frequent unwanted advances—but Rogers’ more adult version of Boop is getting sick of being chased around offices by leering bosses (at least until she can grab something with which to hit them over the head and knock them out) as well as hiding from reporters and paparazzi. She knows something is missing in her life and wants to discover what it is, so she decides to kill both birds with one stone and travel to some place where no one will know who Betty Boop is.
The time and dimension traveling that finds Betty not only in the real world but in modern New York City comes courtesy of “Grampy,” Stephen DeRosa’s eccentric and wonderful living-cartoon incarnation of a Boop character known for his Rube Goldberg machines (one of which is shown here). Grampy has also invented a pan-dimensional travel machine (made from an easy chair) that Betty, despite being warned not to, uses to explore beyond her limited universe. (The special effect of her vanishing from the chair is truly remarkable.) In an inspired quirk of fate, she ends up at New York’s 2023 ComiCon, a place full of odd and anthropomorphic characters similar to the ones she is used to in her world…except that they are in blues and greens and yellows and reds, etc., which she celebrates in a truly rapturous song called (of course) “In Color.”
It is there that she meets the other two main characters of Boop!, a young girl named Trisha (Angelica Hale) and a jazz trumpet player named Dwayne (Ainsley Anthony Melham). It turns out that Trisha is a huge Betty Boop fan—clearly Betty miscalculated about that—for whom the 30s icon is a cultural hero. Sixteen-year-old Hale, a former America’s Got Talent runner-up with a golden voice and the true exuberance of youth, gives Trisha the kind of energy and endless potential that makes Betty later call her a hero, the kind that Betty would love to be able to be. Melham is a gift from the musical theatre gods with Gene Kelly’s good looks as well as his vocal and dance skills, and Dwayne’s love of jazz makes him a perfect fit for Betty’s flapper personality. Their impromptu duet at a club, “Where I Wanna Be,” rings down the first act curtain in a triumphant manner, leading to all of New York celebrating the inexplicable arrival of a cartoon star in their city…while, back in Fleisher’s 30s toon-world, everything is beginning to fall apart without the one person it was built for, setting up a conflict for Act Two.
There are other things going on in Act Two as well. Grampy, with Pudgy the dog (masterfully puppeted by Phillip Huber), has used his machine to try to find Betty and ends up reconnecting with Valentina (Faith Prince), a woman with whom he once had a brief affair while testing it out. Astrophysicist Valentina, now forty years older, which eliminates their former age disparity, is still in love with the odd little man from the cartoons, so they pick up right where they left off. (Prince and DeRosa are perfect matches for each other.)
We also meet sleazy politician Raymond Demarest (Erich Bergen), who made his name in the garbage business (his slogan tells NY that he can “doo doo” more to clean up the city) and is running for mayor so that he can make himself rich with payoffs after approving a monstrous waste management site. (Hmm…a politician whose primary reason for running is to use his office to make more money…wonder how Bob Martin came up with that?) Bergen is spectacular here, and his “Take It to the Next Level” could be one of the great villain songs of all time. Meanwhile, his campaign manager, Carol Evans (Anastacia McKleskey, seriously underused here), who is also connected to both Trisha and Dwayne, is getting more and more tired of trying to make her slimeball boss look like someone who should actually win the election.
That’s a lot of plot, and Act Two feels a bit overstuffed, but Boop! is a lovely thing to watch, too. David Rockwell’s scenic design, combined with state of the art projections by Finn Ross and lighting design by Philip S. Rosenberg, not to mention exciting costumes—both black and white and color—by Gregg Barnes, make this musical a nonstop feast for the eyes, with director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell recreating dances both classical and modern for a very talented cast more than capable of delivering. New York City comes off well, too: Boop! joins the pantheon of let’s-celebrate-NYC musicals that includes such shows as Hello, Dolly; Wonderful Town; Annie; and many, many others in which the city is practically a character. In fact, I doubt that New York has ever looked better than it does here; there are many scenes in which it feels absolutely magical.
Pre-Broadway tryouts are well-known for their creators’ propensity to cut scenes, songs, and entire characters and plotlines, but I will be very disappointed if much is cut out of Boop!. (If anything is cut, it should be in the ridiculous political subplot of Act Two, though that would lessen or lose Bergen’s wonderfully contemptible Raymond.) The show is not too long, it is entirely audience-pleasing, and it builds to a pair of 11:00 numbers that could well become classics: Betty’s dynamic solo “Something to Shout About” and her dazzling duet with Dwayne, “Why Look Around the Corner,” the latter of which is utterly adorable in addition to being spectacular. Both of these, like so much of the musical, highlight the amazing talent of Rogers, who should be a leading contender for next year’s Tony for Best Actress in a Musical, which should be just one of many awards for this gloriously jubilant production. (It will be a crime if Hale is not nominated as well.) This is an absolutely sensational show; see it if it’s at all possible, as it will likely be many years before it returns.
Boop! is now playing at the CIBC Theatre, 18 W. Monroe, Chicago, through December 31. Performance times vary; check Broadway in Chicago’s website. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com