The title might suggest some kind of supernatural element, but the only hell in Helldrivers is the two and a half hours you spend sitting through it.
This excruciating new musical comedy is ostensibly a satire of fluffy ’60s flicks like the Elvis and Ann-Margret vehicle Viva Las Vegas. But in its aggressively puerile execution, Helldrivers’ plot—about a dimwitted speedster and an oily European champ competing for the attentions of a busty redhead—reads more like what you'd get if you spliced the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon Wacky Races with a bargain-bin DVD two-pack of Porky's and Revenge of the Nerds.
But then let's not give Helldrivers too much credit for sophistication. Los Angeles playwright Mark Saltzman's story is a barely-there chassis on which to hang strained sex gags, most of which achieve at best a single entendre. Lucky Stubbs (James Nedrud) is the backwoods bohunk trying to scrape together enough cash to qualify for a big race against old-moneyed Count Porcini Portobelo (David Sajewich). Ann-Margret analogue Pepper Johnson (Samantha Pauly), the default object of their mutual admiration, is introduced with an entire innuendo number about how driving makes her orgasm. (She calls her all-pink car her "Kitty," which leaves one imagining the creative-team meeting in which it was decided "Pussy" was a bridge too far in this sea of sexual references.)
To be fair, all of the show's male characters are just as defined by silly sex obsession as the women; Lucky gets an entire song devoted to his inability to resist the whims of "Little Lucky." Yet for the men, apart from the semi-effete Count, this is presented as only natural, while the women are universally either objects of male desire or unnatural deviants. Saltzman tries to inoculate his show against this observation at one of several (too many) slashes at the fourth wall, when Pepper dares the audience to conflate satire of vintage sexism with actual modern sexism, and why haven't we fixed that?! Good try, but I just recalibrated my sexism meter, and pointing out that things aren't perfect yet doesn't cancel out your regression to old levels.
(In another of several instances in which the show, on opening night at least, gave a big wink to the audience and then used both hands to point at its winking eye, an actor took a non-sequitur swing at Hamilton the Musical. Points for punching up, I guess, but Helldrivers is at this point very far removed from that weight class.)
The surf-rock-pastiche score, it should be noted, is by Berton Averre, best known as a founding member of the band the Knack and a cowriter of their 1979 hit "My Sharona." Averre's music is certainly competent, if undistinguished, which goes double for the lyrics by Rob Meurer.
If Helldrivers was the kind of campy, larky production aimed for a cabaret-style staging—the sort of thing Chicago's Hell in a Handbag Productions often tailors so well to an informal, bar-fueled space like Mary's Attic—you might be more willing to forgive its dramaturgical failings. But this is a fully-Equity, commercially backed piece on the Royal George's main stage, whose producers claim they have their eyes on Broadway. If that's going to be a real goal, Helldrivers is far from road-ready.
(Update: Producers announced Helldrivers of Daytona’s closing on September 16.)
Helldrivers of Daytona, LLC at Royal George Theatre. Book by Mark Saltzman. Music by Berton Averre. Lyrics by Rob Meurer. Directed by Danny Herman. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 35mins; one intermission.
This show is one giant false start.
Every piece of pop culture that this musical is trying to satirize, from the beachy tunes and campy good times to the sex-obsessed teens, is misdirected. It is painful to watch and full of uncomfortable gags and painfully sexist material that doesn't come across as witty at all, just tone deaf.
Kris calling Helldrivers "excruciating" is not an exaggeration. The actors tried to make a bad thing good, but it's too big a task for mere mortals. Skip this.