Chicago Theater Review: HELLDRIVERS OF DAYTONA (Pre-Broadway Tryout at The Royal George Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 13, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


An achingly forgettable world premiere, Helldrivers of Daytona is a nasty piece of art. Flagrantly referencing those dreadful Elvis movie musicals (thus lowering the bar from the start), this tale of hotrod racers in 1965 perpetrates bikini-beach-musical clichés and an I.Q.-shrinking pandering to teenage trivia and spring-break fantasies. But, unlike intelligent and subversive updates like Hairspray or even Grease, this grungy, lowbrow, scatological and manically crude creation wants to sling shit as Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon never could. Vulgar is a compliment here.

What we get on the Royal George mainstage is Gidget on steroids (though there’s only one surfing scene, contrived as everything else). Sheltering in the sheer vacuity of its Viva Las Vegas! genre, Mark Saltzman’s book smarmily wants it both ways—to seduce a Boomer audience to stroll down Memory Lane and then to flood it with sewage. Pit stop indeed.


Reveling in its own crapulence, the much-workshopped musical by Saltzman, pop rock composer Berton Averre, and lyricist Rob Meurer carries an utterly predictable plot, industrial-strength, deadly dated 60s stereotypes, and double-entendre dialogue as low as you go. Set in the Daytona Speedway Jackpot 500 of 53 years ago, the putative plot centers on Lucky Stubbs (James Nedrud), the king of the motorheads, a compulsive gambler, and a horndog who always loses races if he falls for some chick beforehand. So of course loser Lucky gets the hots for salacious airhead Pepper Johnson (Samantha Pauly), a dream girl with a nightmare wig.

To add friction to froth, roadster Lucky not only has to raise money to qualify his beloved junk jalopy Lady Sophia for the race, he has to beat auto designer Count Porcini Portobello (David Jajewich, painfully overacting), a xenophobic send-up of an Italian stallion who, just to look worse, is also bi-sexual and has a dumbass split personality named Chevroline. (That song is an embarrassment worthy of the EPA Superfund.) Surrounding these two-dimensional caricatures are Lucky’s moronic pit crew and the Speedy Pies, a groupie trio who know how to do a three-way three ways (and depict it anatomically just to make the blatant rancid).


With only a cast of 11 (thus circumscribing Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique’s charmless choreography) and a clumsy and boring video of sub-Hanna/Barbera backdrops, Helldrivers ends in a disappointingly lame hotrod race, a sappy ending to send us home feeling all silly and stupid.

Admittedly, the best—and most innocent—element here is Averre’s surefire doo wop score (except for a blatant theft from Beethoven in the second act). Comparable to the Beach Boys’ beauties, choruses like the title number and “Jackpot 500” and ballads like “Teenage Dream” would have held their own in 1965, even more so today. Less can be said for Meurer’s tell-all lyrics since they’re garbled by the singers’ mush-mouth, rapid-fire delivery or the overloud backup band.


The songs aside (the singers are every bit as good as their mikes), what rots out this bottom-feeder is its kneejerk, pathological, serial fixation on bimbo sluts; car, bondage and furry toy fetishes; penises (“Little Lucky” gets a spotlight and there’s an elephant codpiece for another protuberance); boob swings; daddy issues; schizophrenia; a gratuitous slam at Hamilton; and cornball cracker jokes—a show that earns more groans than laughs by at least two laps. Like the race itself, it goes nowhere fast.

Helldrivers of Daytona
The Royal George Theatre, 1641 N Halsted St
Wed & Thurs at 7:30; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 3
ends on October 30, 2016
closed early on September 15, 2016
for tickets, call 312.988.9000 or visit The Royal George

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Berton Averre September 15, 2016 at 6:42 am

In re ripping off Ludwig Van. There was a practice in pop songs where they’d use strains from a classical piece, dating back to the swing era. This device had particularly hilarious results in the doo wop period (and, BTW, most of the music in Helldrivers is not doo wop). My favorite example is The Rays’ “Magic Moon”, taken from Debussy’s ineffably gorgeous “Clair de Lune”: “Magic moon…clair dee loon…”

For the episode in the song “Her” where Lucky sings a paean to his car, this device struck me as an entertaining option. My job was to find a classical piece FAMILIAR ENOUGH that people would get the point of the reference, but a piece that hadn’t actually been used already in an old pop song. It literally never occurred to me that people would think A.) it was my music, or B.) I was trying to get away with making them think so. The gag doesn’t work if people don’t get that it’s the second movement of the Pastoral.

All of which goes to say if I’m a plagiarist I’m a pretty inept one.


Berton Averre, proud composer of Helldrivers of Daytona


Lawrence Bommer September 15, 2016 at 3:58 pm

Well, Beethoven is used to rolling over. It’s more homage, I guess, than grand larceny.
Anyway thanks for the contextualization.


A Moment of Sorrow September 24, 2016 at 8:54 pm

Today we mourn the passing of Rob Meurer, the result of a tragic hit and run near his home in Los Angeles. He was a fantastic man who made a lasting impression on those whose lives he touched. Rob, you will be missed!


Steve McBrearty September 25, 2016 at 6:38 am

I saw this show in Austin, Texas, and this review is incredibly, incredibly off the mark. The show was hilarious and smartly-written. The audience loved it. They got the jokes. They knew what it was about. Of course it was silly. It was a satire. It was making fun of a lot of things. And it made fun of them well. It’s a shame and a travesty (and damn near a tragedy) that this review and others put the show prematurely out of business.


Rodger Boguse October 7, 2016 at 10:21 am

I’m real upset that Hell Drivers Of Daytona, which I wanted to see with my wife, was canceled before it had a chance to get started. All because of some Stupid Theater Critics didn’t like it because it was about racing and cars, something they no nothing about. Is this show anywhere that I may see it? Please let me know.

Thank you.


Lawrence Bommer October 7, 2016 at 3:01 pm

Sorry you don’t like critics. But we like theater more than dumbass ignoramuses who should stick to NASCAR, the level they deserve.


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