Almost 100 years after its commencement, the sultry rhythm of America's storied Prohibition era is one that still intrigues. The Roaring Twenties, with its wild characters and even wilder parties, was a time when Americans were unofficially at play. Hair was bobbed, jazz music was in, and liquor was banned—though that didn't stop anyone from having a boozy good time.
Set in a cold, wintery Chicago in 1928, the newest musical at Obsidian Theater in the Heights invites viewers into the basement of Benjamin's Books, a typical bookstore with a not-so-typical secret. Run by proprietor and head boss lady Texas, The Reading Room is a speakeasy which she refers to as "the best damn gin joint in Chicago."
"In writing the show, I was influenced a lot by the early black-and-white talkies of the late '20s," says Speakeasy scribe Rachel Landon. "I always loved watching the madcap, zany characters that you just can't find in contemporary movies." The project was decided upon a year ago by Rachel Landon and her father Wayne, executive director of SRO Productions, who agreed it would be a great draw to Houston theatergoers.
The story is centered around a proprietress named Texas, a slick businesswoman and "mother-of-all-flappers"-type who runs the underground bar. An evening of tomfoolery ensues with Texas treating her guests to performances by a group of colorful players. Along the way, we meet The Ladies of The Reading Room—including Lucie McHickle, the Okie waitress who plies the audience with champagne throughout the night and a lively performance by the fiercely talented headliner Samantha LaRue. As there was no shortage of illegal activity during this unruly time, the story takes an intense turn when two local gangsters make an unexpected visit to settle an outstanding debt.
Well-known classics from the Jazz Age, including "I Wanna Be Loved By You" and "Chicago, That Toddling' Town," add a delightfully amusing element to the show's turbulent backdrop. "I've always loved the music from America's Prohibition era," Landon tells us. "It's ridiculously catchy, often hilarious, but also heartbreaking." While Landon mixed in a good deal of influence from modern-day musicals—a lot of upbeat song-and-dance numbers—she explains she couldn't just make it a musical comedy. "I mixed in some complex and heartbreaking moments for the characters to go through."
Visually inspired by the popular Art Deco-style of the time, set designer Wayne Landon captures the energy of a top-secret Chicago hideaway and brings The Reading Room to life with an expertly designed floor and stage. Costumes were given equal attention, with characters donning outfits with geometric elements in dazzling colors and sparkles galore.
Of recreating the ultimate hush-hush experience from the 1920s though, production spans beyond the show itself. Members of the audience should expect a run-in with Eugene the bouncer before being able to enter the theater. And if you are indeed "on the list," mentioning the password (something only ticket holders will know) will get you into one of the most surreptitious speakeasies in town.
April 1–16. 8. $25–37.50. Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak Drive. 832-889-7837. sro-productions.com