With Cupid’s day fast approaching, timing could not be more perfect for The Drowsy Chaperone, Broadway’s Valentine to Musical Theater, to make its West Coast Regional debut in an absolutely splendid production by 3-D Theatricals.

Musical theater lovers will surely recognize themselves in the show’s giddy narrator, known simply as Man In Chair (Michael Betts), who introduces us to the largely forgotten (and entirely fictional) 1928 Broadway musical which shares its title with the one we are seeing. There having been no bootleg videos back in the Roaring Twenties, all that remains of “The Drowsy Chaperone” are black-and-white photos and its Original Cast Recording on vinyl, part of Man In Chair’s extensive library of LPs. No matter that the first complete OCR wasn’t in fact recorded till 1938’s The Cradle Will Rock, Man In Chair has spent countless hours listening to The Drowsy Chaperone at 33.3 rpms, and this time we get to join him.

As the strains of the scratchily recorded Overture are joined by 3-D’s big, live pit orchestra, Man In Chair’s drab, black-and-white apartment morphs into the full-color foyer of Tottendale Manor, with guests arriving for the wedding of Broadway star Janet Van de Graff (Gail Bennett) to oil tycoon Robert Martin (Joseph Sark). There’s Robert’s best man George (Robert Ramirez), “Feldzieg Follies” impresario Mr. Feldzeig (James W. Gruessing, Jr.) and his dumb blonde girlfriend Kitty (Nicole Manly), a matched pair of gangsters masquerading as pastry chefs (Juan Guilen and Justin Jones), Latin lothario Aldolpho (Carlos Martin), and Janet’s Drowsy (i.e. tipsy) Chaperone (Tracy Lore). Completing the cast are lady of the manor Mrs. Tottendale (Sally Struthers), her loyal Underling (Danny Michaels), an aviatrix named Trix (Amber J. Snead), and a quartet of servants, reporters, aviators, etc. (Casey Garritano, Hannah Simmons, Jon W. Wailin, and Stephanie Wall).

As we meet this sparkling cast of characters, Man In Chair gives us some biographical tidbits about the 1920s Broadway performers who originated them, showbiz legends like “world class alcoholic” Roman Bartelli (Aldolpho), “the man of 1,000 accents, all of them offensive”; Beatrice Stockwell (The Chaperone), “an alcoholic, her character was I mean. To be honest she drank too”; and “Oops Girl” Jane Roberts (Janet), “billed as the girl whose sexual energy was so great that it caused men around her to spill their drinks, drive their cars into trees,” thereby causing her to go “Oops!”

The 1920s musical’s wisp of a plot (they were all wispy back then) has that pair of pastry chef gangsters hired by a wealthy Broadway investor to “persuade” Follies’ Feldzeig to put a stop to Janet’s wedding, thus insuring that she will stay put where she belongs—in Feldzeig’s Follies. An ingenious Feldzeig comes up with a plan for Aldolpho to ruin Janet’s relationship with Robert by seducing her. Unfortunately, Aldolpho confuses Janet’s chaperone for the bride-to-be, who’s out in the garden pretending to be a French girl in order to test Robert’s love. In the words of Man In Chair, “We have a bride who’s giving up the stage for love, her debonair bridegroom, a harried producer, jovial gangsters posing as pastry chefs, and an aviatrix – what we now call a lesbian.”

Confused? No matter. You’ll be so thoroughly entertained by The Drowsy Chaperone (Tony-winning music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, Tony-winning book by Bob Martin & Don McKellar) that plot pickiness will be the last thing on your mind.

Angelinos got their first peek at The Drowsy Chaperone in its 2005 pre-Broadway engagement at the Ahmanson, and a second look when the National Tour returned three years later. The good news is that those wanting a third look at the Tony winner (5 victories out of 11 nominations) can rest assured that 3-D Theatrical’s almost entirely locally-cast production more than delivers the goods. Our L.A.-based musical theater talents not only hold their own against the all-Equity original Broadway cast, they actually surpass the Tour cast almost across the board.

Beth Leavel won the Tony for her Broadway performance as The Drowsy Chaperone, and glamorous one-of-a-kind SoCal stage star Lore not only nails every one of the ever-woozy chaperone’s laughs in trademark Lore fashion, she sings sensationally and emotes to quirky perfection.

Three other Broadway performers won Tony noms: the show’s co-creator Martin for Man In Chair, Danny Burstein for Aldolpho, and Sutton Foster for Janet, and their 3-D successors are likely to generate equally voluminous cheers. Betts has the toughest task—to make Man In Chair his own role and not a Martin carbon copy—and in this he succeeds with flying colors, giving us Man’s many shadings, complexities, quirks, and foibles, and making them seem fresh and new. Full-of-himself Aldolpho is a part any comedic actor would kill for, and Martin is a sabrosismo laugh riot in the role. Bennett, the cast’s sole out-of-towner, has the charisma, looks, voice, and comedic chops to follow in Foster’s hard-to-fill footsteps, proving herself a star-on-the-rise.

Struthers assumes the role created on Broadway and in the National Tour by Georgia Engel (coincidentally her CBS Studios-mate throughout most of the 1970s), giving the absent-minded Mrs. Tottendale the same Struthers wackiness she brought to her Ovation Award-winning roles in last year’s Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella.

Playing delightful second fiddle to Struthers is Scenie winner Michaels, helping to make the pair’s “spit take” scene a classic. Sark makes for a great comedic-romantic lead, does a snazzy tap duet with Ramirez, who plays sidekick George with zip and pizzazz. Gruessing’s fast-talking Feldzeig and Manly’s slow-thinking Kitty are both comic treats. Guillen and Jones play the gangsters in perfect, hilarious, scene-stealing sync. Snead’s 11th hour cameo as Trix spotlights the bubbly entertainer’s terrific pipes.

Ensemble members Garritano, Simmons, Wailin, and Wall bring pep and bounce to their numerous singing/dancing roles, with Wailin a laugh-getter as Man In Chair’s apartment building super.

Director TJ Dawson, who discovered The Drowsy Chaperone in its initial Ahmanson engagement, helms this first regional production with imagination and verve. Kami Seymour’s lively choreography pays tribute to the 1920s with 21st Century flair. Musical director Bret Simmons conducts the 3-D pit orchestra with zest.

If J. Branson’s sets don’t live up to the brilliance and complexity of David Gallo’s Tony-winning designs, they manage to recreate the originals’ look and versatility on a simpler scale, especially as lit with Technicolor brilliance by lighting director Steven Young. Sharell Martin’s costume designs are every bit as colorful and imaginative as the Tony-winning Broadway originals. Josh Bessom’s sound design was still trying to find appropriate volume levels on opening night, making it at times difficult to understand dialog and lyrics, a problem hopefully to be resolved in later performances. Terry Hanrahan is production stage manager, Lisa Palmire assistant stage manager, and Jeanette Dawson pit singer..

Man In Chair sums up The Drowsy Chaperone, both the 1928 chestnut he so adores and the 2005 musical that bears its name, thusly:

“It does what a musical is supposed to do. It takes you to another world and it … it gives you a little tune to carry in your head for … for … when you’re feeling blue, you know? As we stumble along on life’s funny journey. As we stumble along into the blue.”

This Drowsy Chaperone dazzles brightly under Fullerton skies.

3-D Theatricals, Plummer Auditorium, 210 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton.
–Steven Stanley
February 11, 2011
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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