‘Hazel: A Musical Maid in America’ too manic for its own good

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Tyler Martin (from left), Roan Moxley, Ava Morse, Casey Lyons and Klea Blackhurst in the world premiere Drury Lane Theatre production of “Hazel, A Musical Maid in America.” (Photo: Brett Beiner)

Hazel Burke, the professional live-in maid with the instincts of a natural-born psychologist, was born as a comic strip character in 1943 (the creation of Ted Key), and became the center of a popular 1960s television series in which she was memorably portrayed by Shirley Booth. Now she is at the center of a new show, “Hazel, A Musical Maid in America,” which is receiving its world premiere at the Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, where Klea Blackhurst is giving a rocket-fueled performance in the title role. Directed and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, the musical is highly polished, but far too often seems to be running on an exceptionally heavy dose of amphetamines.

‘HAZEL, A MUSICAL MAID IN AMERICA’ Recommended When: Through May 29 Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace Tickets: $45 – $60 Info: (630) 530-0111; www.www.DruryLaneTheatre.com Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

To be sure, there are moments of wit and whimsy in “Hazel,” many of them involving the presence of four child actors who all but steal the show (and, with their crystalline diction and uncanny timing, put the kids in “Matilda” to shame). The score, by Ron Abel (music) and Chuck Steffan (lyrics), is lively, with several big numbers for Hazel, and one truly lovely song (“Space”) for a young boy. But after all is said and done, a single crucial question hangs over this show: Why tell this story now?

Set in 1965, as the feminist movement was gathering steam, and middle-class women were untying their aprons and heading out to become part of the formal workplace — the storyline (including the character of a husband who feels unmoored and expendable) — feels like ancient history. And despite the efforts of the show’s writer, Lissa Levin, to both capture that period of the Cold War (with its race into space, its fascination with UFOs, the arrival of all sorts of electronic gear, and the emergence of mega-supermarkets), and to supply echoes of the current campaign (asking if America has lost its glory, and if a woman will ever become president), the whole thing seems at once dated and unnecessary.

Shari Mocheit (from left), Courtney Cerny, Noonan (on floor), and Ed Kross in “Hazel, A Musical Maid in America.” (Photo: Brett Beiner)

Shari Mocheit (from left), Courtney Cerny, Noonan (on floor), and Ed Kross in “Hazel, A Musical Maid in America.” (Photo: Brett Beiner)

One thing is for certain: Hazel is not a woman to make a quiet entrance. And Blackhurst (whose Ethel Merman-like pipes are paired with a warmer yet still indomitable spirit), puts her stamp on the role from the moment she strides down an aisle of the theater in her pale blue uniform, playfully engages with members of the audience, and finally arrives on stage declaring “Ya Gonna Need Help.”

The family in need of her help, whether they know it or not, is the Baxters, whose suburban home is undergoing a major change. While George Baxter (Ken Clark), a somewhat stiff and insecure lawyer, is hellbent on becoming a partner in his firm by signing Bonkers Johnson (a zany Ed Kross), a “visionary” electronics genius and eccentric TV star, his wife, Dorothy (the ever charming Summer Naomi Smart) is heading out to pursue a career as an interior decorator. As for the couple’s brainy eight-year-old son, Harold (Casey Lyons), he is desperate for his dad’s approval, and is about to be caught up in his parents’ power shift.

Summer Naomi Smart and Ken Clark in “Hazel, A Musical Maid in America.” (Photo: Brett Beiner)

Summer Naomi Smart and Ken Clark in “Hazel, A Musical Maid in America.” (Photo: Brett Beiner)

Hazel’s arrival is not immediately welcomed by George. But she is an instant hit with the UFO and space-obsessed Harold and his hilarious little pals — Scotty (tiny Tyler Martin), Ava Morse (a hoot as a fervent mini-feminist) and Rowan Moxley (eight going on 40). And from the moment Hazel welcomes Bonkers into the house for a business dinner, he too is beguiled.

The show’s wildly episodic first act is an overly manic and cartoonish ride through someone’s idea of the 1960s. The second act settles down a bit, with Hazel (“born in Urbana, Ill.”) revealing something about her past to Harold (Blackhurst, finally permitted to slow down, gives a most touching rendering of “A Part ‘A Me”), and Harold, sitting alone in a park, singing “Space” (with Lyons’ beautiful voice finally piercing the heart of the show).

Kevin Depinet’s set, with ingenious lighting by Lee Fiskness and projections by Christopher Ash that suggest a wall of flashing video screens, is at once modern and otherworldly. And Roberta Duchak’s music direction, and Alan Buckowieki’s direction of the pit band, are superb. But in the end, “Hazel” feels about as substantial as a feather duster.

Klea Blackhurst stars in “Hazel, A Musical Maid in America.” (Photo: Brett Beiner)

Klea Blackhurst stars in “Hazel, A Musical Maid in America.” (Photo: Brett Beiner)

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