As a fan and amateur historian of the film industry in America, I found Sons of Hollywood to be a heart-rending retelling of the lives of those who entertained millions in the early days of Tinsel Town. The tragedy of Ramon Navarro has been told as well as embellished to include more salacious and erroneous details. Playwrights Carl Menninger and Barry Ball have given a vulnerable and humane portrayal of Navarro and early screen star turned decorator to the powerful and glamorous—William Haines.
This play opens as the premiere of the original Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) is about to happen. Navarro played by Trey de Luna is anguishing over his performance and whether or not the people will like it. De Luna is perfect casting as Navarro. He gives a fine balance of Mexican Catholic guilt—which is way more intense than American Catholic guilt—and wanting stardom and wealth to support his family. De Luna also bears a resemblance to Navarro, especially when posing for publicity shots. In one of the lighter moments, Navarro professes his love for God and respect for the sacrament of marriage and then takes dramatic poses from his left side because he has been told it is his best side.
De Luna plays Navarro’s sexuality as naive and trusting. Navarro believed that confession and repentance would cleanse away what was considered perversion and a sin. Adam Jennings as William Haines gives a powerful performance as a man who would not be told what to do even by the powerful Louis B. Mayer, played by Max Stewart. Jennings gives Haines joy in being an actor and a gay man who will not be denied. The chemistry between Jennings and Kyle Patrick as Haines’ life partner Jimmie Shields is hot. Patrick is funny and tender in his portrayal of a sailor that Haines picked up in New York and took home for good.
The scene of Haines confronting Jimmie about the alleged molestation of a young boy is tremendous. Jennings breaks down how the life they have built could be ruined. He veers between rage, fear, and love without the melodramatics of the era. It is not as widely known that groups like the KKK went after the gay community, Catholics and Jews as well as Black Americans. It may not be as well known that there was a white supremacy movement in Hollywood that was empowered by the Hays Production Code. Racism and anti-Semitism were rampant in California in spite of the sunny and glamorous portrayals on the big screen.
Abby Lee as Lucille LeSeur/Joan Crawford is a bright confection in this show. She plays the famously dramatic Crawford as a quintessential flapper with a devil-may-care attitude. Lee gets some of the best lines in the play and always makes an entrance. Lee gives us the sexy Joan Crawford from early films like Our Dancing Daughters (1928) to The Women (1939). A scene is recreated from Our Dancing Daughters with her doing the Charleston on a table. The only thing about her performance is that she did not speak with Crawford’s famous purr-like voice.
Also, the playwrights pass over Crawford’s legendary sexual prowess and documented promiscuity. Crawford was close friends with Navarro and Haines but her character is there to dispense one-liners and be a sympathetic ear for her gay friends. There’s a rather offensive name for that and it ends with hag. I would have liked to see more of her character’s back story.
Director David Bell does a good job of eliciting great performances from a cast with actors playing multiple roles. A standout is Max Stewart as Navarro’s publicist and lover Herbert Howe. He also plays Louis B. Mayer who heartlessly terminates Navarro’s contract even though he was the one who made MGM big with his Latin Lover roles. His last role is as Navarro’s secretary Weber who knew that Navarro had company and got a bad vibe on the night his boss was bludgeoned to death by two itinerant hustlers.
I found the pacing to be a bit clunky with snippets of songs between scenes. They are sung beautifully and serve as a Greek chorus of sorts, but there are too many. The prop changing is smooth enough that some of the scenes could have been done with just a change of lighting.
Sons of Hollywood gives a good look at the days of a Hollywood that was more sexually frank and even licentious. The nudity, sexuality, and graphic violence that are common in modern movies were also in the early silents and some talkies. Almost all of the things deemed prohibited by the Hays Code are on display in this play except miscegenation, which has to be explained to comic effect by Lee. There are a lot of names dropped/outed in the play of actors who were suspected of being gay or lesbian for decades but only in whispers. Haines was an exception who refused to have a fake marriage to a woman as Rock Hudson to Henry Wilson’s secretary. Haines and Shields went on to be the most in-demand decorators to the rich and famous, including the Reagans.
Menninger and Ball expose the movie industry, which is still all about the glamorous image, only today it is called your brand. They have created fleshed-out real people that were these early stars. Lauren Nigri’s set design gives the aura of old Hollywood with Spanish arches and saturated colors with a touch of decay. It was a perfect backdrop for this story. The lighting design by Anthony Forchielli is a character in this show. The blinding spotlights and slightly ochre-colored lights give Sons of Hollywood a vintage feel and serve as the light from these actors that once shone brightly. I give this show 3 stars and recommend that you see it if you love knowing behind-the-scenes stories and a bit of cinema history. A really nice touch from Windy City Playhouse is Navarro’s Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ playing on the television over the bar in the lobby. It was the movie that put MGM on the map and Ramon Navarro too.
Sons of Hollywood runs through April 17 at Windy City Playhouse, 3014 W. Irving Park Rd. The run time is two hours with one intermission. Tickets are $65-$75. For more information and to buy tickets, visit the website.
Covid restrictions are in effect. Please wear a mask to cover your nose and mouth, and bring your vaccine card and proof of identification. Let’s keep live theater alive. Protect the actors, the audience, and yourself.
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