Theater Review: BOOP! THE BETTY BOOP MUSICAL (Pre-Broadway World Premiere at CIBC Theatre in Chicago)

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by Barnaby Hughes on December 9, 2023

in Theater-Chicago,Theater-New York


Light-hearted, rather silly, and occasionally preachy, BOOP! The Betty Boop Musical could have been so much more.

Betty Boop seems an unlikely candidate for revival considering that her fame is almost entirely confined to cartoons animated by Max Fleischer in the 1930s. Although she has gained new fans through merchandising, animated series and film projects on YouTube and DVD have failed to get off the ground. BOOP! The Betty Boop Musical takes advantage of this opening. In fact, it seems ready-made for audiences used to comic adaptations. Do we really need a musical about a cartoon character created nearly a century ago? Of course not! (But then again, did we really need a musical about cats?)

Jasmine Amy Rogers as Betty Boop
Jasmine Amy Rogers as Betty Boop with ensemble

The character of Betty Boop was a product of Jazz Age Culture, sexy, precocious and adventurous. The initial adult audience was transformed in 1934 by the introduction of the Hays Code, which enforced new obscenity rules, resulting in a more modest Betty and a younger, more juvenile audience. This dual heritage was reflected in the opening night audience in Chicago, where BOOP! opened with its sights for Broadway. Onstage at the CIBC Theatre, Betty shows cleavage, wears short dresses, and references her troubles with men, but otherwise remains clothed and refrains from profane language. The musical’s sexual references, however, make it most suitable for teens (and don’t think producers don’t know that.) In that vein, having it both ways largely succeeds — but at what cost to the show’s greater possibilities?

Stephen DeRosa (Grampy), Jasmine Amy Rogers (Betty Boop), Phillip Huber (Pudgy)

“Who is Betty Boop?” That is the question at the center of BOOP! When a journalist asks this question of our eponymous heroine, she is plunged into an existential crisis. Traveling to present-day New York in Grampy’s time machine, Betty soon learns what she means to other people and in the process discovers herself. There are numerous subplots including: a love story between Betty and an aspiring jazz trumpeter; a mayoral election campaign involving potential corruption; and a young girl exploring her artistic talent.

(Center) Jasmine Amy Rogers (Betty Boop), Ainsley Anthony Melham (Dwayne),
(left) Erich Bergen (Raymond), Anastacia McCleskey (Carol Evans), Angelica Hale (Trisha),
(Far right) Phillip Huber (Pudgy), Faith Prince (Valentina),Stephen DeRosa (Grampy)
Anastacia McCleskey(Carol Evans) and Erich Bergen (Raymond Demarest)

What many of these subplots add up to is a deeply feminist message of female empowerment. This comes through strongest in the mayoral election. After Betty realizes that seedy, philandering villain Raymond Demarest is using her celebrity without giving her a voice, she urges his campaign manager Carol to run against him. And despite Grampy’s evident talent for invention, we learn that his old flame Valentina is the really intelligent one. She transforms his Rube Goldberg-like time traveling chair into an elegantly simple umbrella.

Jasmine Amy Rogers as Betty Boop

Jasmine Amy Rogers as Betty Boop is the beating heart of this musical, transforming this comic icon from a cute cartoon into a fully-fledged human being. Rogers achieves the impossible, managing to be by turns: fun, sweet, sexy and charismatic. And her beautiful soprano voice expresses a wonderful range of emotions that hits all the right notes. Most importantly for the leading lady, she can hold the audience rapt all by herself, as in the penultimate song “Something to Shout About.”

 Jasmine Amy Rogers (Betty Boop), Ainsley Anthony Melham (Dwayne), and Ensemble
Anastacia McCleskey (Carol Evans), Angelica Hale (Trisha),
Jasmine Amy Rogers (Betty Boop), and Erich Bergen (Raymond Demarest)

As Betty’s love interest Dwayne, Ainsley Anthony Melham is not entirely convincing. Partly it’s the cut of his clothes and the manner in which he is dressed. But this production doesn’t do him a lot of favors. This comes out most clearly in his solo song “She Knocks Me Out.” It’s a bold and emotive number that feels overblown, especially due to the loud accompaniment and agitated choreography.

Jasmine Amy Rogers (Betty Boop) and Angelica Hale (Trisha)

Angelica Hale plays Tricia, the young girl who befriends Betty at Comic Con and introduces her to most of the people she meets in present-day New York. Hers is a winsome character full of hope and promise, but her young voice doesn’t seem quite up to the task it’s given. Stephen DeRosa overacts as Grampy, his hammy performance quickly grating. By contrast, Erich Bergen’s Raymond is a master class in slick, chauvinistic villainy. The surprise delight of the cast, however, is marionette artist Philip Huber’s “Pudgy,” Betty’s endearing canine.

Stephen DeRosa and Faith Prince

The creative time behind Boop! includes Bob Martin (book), Susan Birkenhead (lyrics), David Foster (music), and Jerry Mitchell (direction and choreography. Martin’s book is a rather quirky confection, but Birkenhead’s lyrics add plenty of wit and humor. Her “In Color” is an oddly memorable song, marking Betty’s arrival in New York from her black-and-white cartoon world. And this theme later morphs into the climactic, singalong “Color of Love.” Mitchell’s dance choreography mirrors Foster’s varied music, encompassing jazz, tap, swing and hip hop. It’s all nostalgically throwback, yet utterly contemporary, with something for every generation.

Angelica Hale (Trisha), Jasmine Amy Rogers (Betty), Ainsley Anthony Melham (Dwayne), Ensemble

Light-hearted, rather silly, and occasionally preachy, Boop! could have been so much more. While funny, it’s never laugh-out-loud. And while it tries to tug the heartstrings, it fails to draw tears. If Boop! had gone for its original adult audience by including sexier costumes and dancing and more raunchy and risque language, instead of trying to please everyone, it could have been a great show. Of course, this would have limited its appeal. Instead, we get a fairly bland, family-friendly show about romance and self-discovering that just happens to star a nearly forgotten cartoon character.

Ainsley Anthony Melham (Dwayne) and Jasmine Amy Rogers (Betty Boop)

photos © Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

BOOP! The Betty Boop Musical
pre-Broadway tryout
reviewed at CIBC Theatre, 18 West Monroe St
opening night December 6; closes December 24, 2023
for Broadway info, visit BOOP!

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