Handbag kicks it up and spreads it out with this remount of their 2006 production. For the last few years, Handbag has performed at Mary’s Attic. Those tight quarters only allowed for minimal scenery and choreography. Their current move to Theater Wit allows them to dress it up. Although the irreverent camp is still the focal point, the drag show gets a theatrical makeover. This polished production elevates the Handbag. The set is slick. And the choreography is elaborate. Even Executive Producer David Cerda (Warden) is sporting some smart, new frocks. CAGED DAMES is the new “Orange is the New Black” but with bouncy tunes and heavy-duty snark.
Cerda (book, music, lyrics and performer) rips on women prison movies. Cerda uses this dramatic genre as the basis for his hilarious absurdity. The spoof has the young, innocent, pregnant Mary (played by the outstandingly affected Elizabeth Morgan) sent to the big house. She endures incarceration with the help of a motley crew that includes an adorable rat. These gals teach Morgan how to survive in jailhouse style. Choreographer Steve Love goes ballsy with big dance numbers. As the kind-hearted and spunky Trixie, Love leads the dames in several energetic, razzle dazzle sequences.
The large and talented ensemble really flourish on the bigger stage. It’s like these dames were caged in the cramped Mary’s Attic. And now that they are free, they are going to dance, dance, dance. Being a long-time fan of Handbag, I marveled at what a difference more space makes. Handbag goes from home-spun buffoonery to professional musical comedy. The change is most apparent in the cool set. Scenic Designer Zachary Gipson creates a big boxy fortress that opens into the cell dormitory. The impressive visual is like a pop-up book.
Despite the new production values, the familiar Handbag humor is still center stage. Although the jokes are plentiful, the lampooning about woman-on-woman action is too much of a funny thing. Initially, the muff eating references are chuckle-worthy. Later, the overused box lunch gets stale. The repetitive titillation loses its shock factor.
My favorite aspects of this production are Handbag’s signature playfulness. Handbag regular Ed Love (Elsie) hilariously accuses a cast member of being insignificant. This sends Mario Mazzetti into the riotous “I’m Typist/Guard” song. Throughout the show, the perfectly daft Elizabeth Lesinski (Myrtle) sputters nonsensical comments. Her unexpected and ridiculous insertions are a hoot. And Cerda, in his customary Joan Crawford way, continually zings the joke with his haughty deadpan.
CAGED DAMES is what a new Handbag looks like. The reliability you expect is there. It’s just prettier.
Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes includes an intermission
At Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Book, music and lyrics by David Cerda
Directed by AJ Wright
Music direction by Emily Barrett
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm
Sundays at 3pm
Additional shows on June 16th and July 9th
No shows on June 29th or July 4th
Thru July 13th
Buy Tickets at www.theaterwit.org
For more information and reviews on Chicago theatre, check out Theatre in Chicago.