Windy City Playhouse takes us back to the pre-Hays Code era in compelling Sons of Hollywood

Photo by Michael Brosilow

Windy City Playhouse has returned to its flagship theatre on Irving Park Rd. with a shining new production of a play with music written by Barry Ball and Associate Artistic Director Carl Menninger. Sons of Hollywood shines a light on the people and events that changed Hollywood in the 20s and 30s. Directed by David H. Bell, this true story focuses on three people in the MGM studios stable: popular actor Billy Haines (Adam Jennings), rising star Ramon Navarro (Trey DeLuna), and up-and-coming actress Lucille LeSueur (Abby Lee), who would soon achieve stardom under the stage name Joan Crawford. These three, friends from the silent era, managed to successfully navigate the change to talkies, but the dawn of the Hays Code in the early 30s, while it did not affect Crawford’s career, seriously affected the two men.

Lovingly interspersed with snippets of songs from the era, Sons of Hollywood invites us back to the decadent period before movie studios adopted (under threat from Congress) the chilling code of conduct that, among other things, banned any depictions of sex—the “one foot on the ground” rule—and even the veiled mention of homosexuality. As we learn in the opening scenes, many of the stars in the 20s—including Haines and Navarro—were gay and openly having relationships with each other. (This is definitely not something I had known beforehand.) Until the Hays Code expressly forbade it, no one particularly paid attention or cared if the stars were gay. Then, suddenly, everyone did. The code even policed their private lives.

Not desiring to hide his relationship with his long-time lover Jimmie Shields (Kyle Patrick), Haines abruptly retired from acting and became a well-loved and popular interior designer. Navarro, on the other hand, a devoutly Catholic Mexican-American actor who had inherited Rudolph Valentino’s mantle of “Latin Lover,” chose not to end his career, foolishly believing he was too popular of MGM to fire, though that is what they did after many high-profile incidents blemished his public image. DeLuna gives one of the best and most raw performances in the play, allowing us into the mind of a man who pretty much embodies the phrase “self-loathing.” Unwilling to be openly defiant to his religious nature and unable to stop being who he was, Navarro instead crawled into a bottle and allowed it to define him as much as either Catholic or gay did.

DeLuna’s tormented performance contrasts extremely with the portrayals of the other key characters. Jennings’ Haines doesn’t let anything get to him other than an occasion of public disloyalty by his lover Shields. They were so close that Crawford called them “the happiest married couple in Hollywood,” but gay relationships at the time were not expected to be monogamous. As Shields lacked both the talent and the resumé of his lover, he was very insecure about the relationship, and Patrick’s portrayal of him as a sweet, sincere boy whose impostor syndrome occasionally flares up is touching.

As for Crawford, her star was just beginning to rise in the 30s, and as she had no gay affairs to hide, the Hays Code did nothing to stop her Oscar-winning career. But Lee’s performance, which places the emphasis squarely on her playful relationships with the others, brings out a much more fun and tender character than those who know the actress as “Mommy Dearest” might have imagined. (Her very Crawford-esque vocal stylings are on point, also.)

Menninger brilliantly uses these actors, in addition to a clean-cut, perfectly poised ensemble with silky voices that welcome us into the songs and also portray several minor characters (including Louis B. Mayer), staging scenes all over Lauren Nigri’s lovely, multi-level set—a villa owned by Navarro and then later by Crawford—allowing sparse furnishings and Anthony Forchielli’s lighting to distinguish space. The sometimes too-abrupt scenes on occasion make the jump-cut scene changes a bit awkward, but overall Menninger manages to create a strong sense of place as well as period. (Sydney Moore’s perfect costuming certainly helps with the latter.)

This is not a typical WCP show in that it is not interactive, as has been their forte lately. Here, the audience sits in fixed seats watching the show (though the first two rows, for a premium price, are made up of curved-back padded chairs that nicely transition us into the era being depicted. Nonetheless, Menninger and company manage to deliver the kind of performances we have come to associate with the close-up acting that has become the specialty of the house. The comfortable movie-theatre style seats—even from the back row—feel close to the action, and that’s all we really need. If I have any significant complaint, it’s with the sound. The music and singing are often not as clear or loud as the actors are when they speak…all in all, a minor issue for a show that compelled me to spend a night researching the era and these actors’ real lives…which were just as the script showed them: fascinating, flamboyant, and sometimes sad.

Sons of Hollywood, which will play through April 17, runs two and a half hours and contains one intermission. Tickets are available at Windy City Playhouse’s website.

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