It isn’t often you attend a theater production and come away absolutely stunned. After the first act, my boyfriend and I looked at each other, wide-eyed looks of incredulity beneath our masks, simply in awe of the sheer talent we had just witnessed on stage. Sons of Hollywood is a Broadway-caliber production on an intimate stage, telling a relatively unknown yet powerful story of identity, censorship, love, and transformation. Windy City Playhouse has given us a holy relic of a story, illustrating the struggle to live a true life and the cost that comes in a heart-wrenchingly beautiful tale.
Sons of Hollywood tells the true story of the lives of three silent screen actors- Joan Crawford (née Lucille LeSueur), Billy Haines and Ramon Novarro. We start out as Ramon Novarro’s star is on the rise, the year that the silent film Ben Hur is released. He was a relatively unknown actor at the time, suddenly thrust into the spotlight. He is befriended by Billy Haines, a major name in Hollywood, and Lucille LeSueur, an A-list actress who later changes her name to Joan Crawford. This somewhat motley crew navigates Hollywood, lifestyle choices, and looming societal and film industry restrictions that expose the chasm between personal and professional lives.
The crux of the play comes when the Motion Picture Production Code is formalized. This code was foreshadowed when the Supreme Court ruled in 1915 that free speech did not extend to motion pictures. With the advent of “talkie films,” individual state censorship boards started popping up. In 1927, the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) collaborated on a list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls,” stemming from the issues brought up by individual state censor boards. In 1930, studios agreed to abide by the Code, and in 1934 it was strictly enforced. This code included stipulations against sexual perversion (under which homosexuality fell, according to their definition) as well as miscegenation, which is sexual relationships between black and white races.
Love or money. Living an authentic life in the open or conforming to the ideals of others. Owning your truth or living a lie. Fame or shame. These are decisions that many people make, and have a profound effect on where the path they decide to take delivers them. Each main character in Sons of Hollywood makes a choice in this vein, and is faced with the aftermath of their decision.
One man chooses love and authenticity over fame and continued work in an industry he loves. He was openly gay prior to the Code being enforced, and continued to live life according to his values. The other was internally and externally conflicted about his sexuality, and tried to conform, ending up unhappy and nostalgic for the good old days. Although Joan didn’t have to make a decision about her own orientation, she did thumb her nose at the rules and remain close to those she loved.
Windy City Playhouse, as you probably have guessed, is my absolute favorite theater company in Chicago. From their deep, meaningful exploration of complex themes to their artistic capabilities that completely immerse audiences in the show, they are the perfect combination of depth and entertainment. After a pandemic-driven hiatus, the Irving Park location is back. The lobby is an ideal venue for a pre-show cocktail (I had Ramon’s Seduction- a sweet champagne cocktail with bitters). Their attention to detail and creating an atmosphere that allows you to get lost in the story is unparalleled.
With a tidy cast, multiple actors play numerous parts, stretching their range of talent by seamlessly transitioning into distinctly different personalities and proclivities. The beauty of the intimate nature of the theater is that the cast comes out after the show. Their partners, friends and family wait for them in the lobby, bearing flowers, hugs and words of encouragement. People gather around the family room-style seating, warming themselves by the fire and grabbing popcorn from the bar. Every aspect is approachable yet sophisticated- from the cocktails to the seating to the staff. It is a true asset for the city of Chicago, and I can’t recommend Sons of Hollywood enough!
Cheers to the re-emergence of performance art, and kicking it off with an absolute bang!
Disclosure: I was provided with complimentary tickets for review purposes. All opinions are honest and my own as always.