The Tony-winning 2006 Broadway musical The Drowsy Chaperone proves the best possible showcase for more than twenty talented USC undergrads (and audiences lucky enough to catch it during its sold-out six-performance run through Sunday).

Musical theater lovers will surely recognize themselves in the show’s giddy narrator, known simply as Man In Chair (Thomas Krottinger), 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 a live four-piece band, Man In Chair’s drab apartment morphs into the foyer of Tottendale Manor, with guests arriving for the wedding of Broadway star Janet Van de Graff (Carrie St. Louis) to oil tycoon Robert Martin (Patrick Moynihan). There’s Robert’s best man George (Ben Rudolph), “Feldzieg Follies” impresario Mr. Feldzeig (Steven Miller) and his dumb blonde girlfriend Kitty (Haley Willis), a mis-matched pair of gangsters masquerading as pastry chefs (Philip Labes and Frank Hobbs), Latin lothario Adolpho (Cole Cuomo), and Janet’s Drowsy (i.e. tipsy) Chaperone (Olivia Lane). Completing the cast are lady of the manor Mrs. Tottendale (Sarah Bernosky), her loyal Underling (Andrew Johnson), an aviatrix named Trix (Adrienne Storrs), and a merry band of servants, reporters, aviators, etc. (Arielle Fishman, Amanda Holt, Mary Katherine Malone, Allison Robbins, Jennifer Kranz, Rachel Newman, David Nicholson, and John Michael Sudsina).

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 (Adolpho), “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 Adolpho to ruin Janet’s relationship with Robert by seducing her. Unfortunately, Adolpho 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.

Unlike the majority of university productions reviewed here, The Drowsy Chaperone is entirely student directed, choreographed, and designed, the latest in a series of outstanding blackbox stagings of hit Broadway musicals by USC’s Musical Theatre Repertory—and one which proves that The Drowsy Chaperone works every bit as well in an intimate setting as it did at the Ahmanson (in both pre-Broadway and National Tour productions) and in its West Coast Regional Premiere by 3-D Theatricals. A considerably smaller band takes the place of a full orchestra, sets are minimal (particularly compared with the elaborate Tony-winning originals), and there is probably not a single cast member a day over twenty-two. And you know what? The Drowsy Chaperone proves every bit as entertaining as ever.

Under D.J. Blickenstaff’s highly imaginative direction, there’s not a weak link in the show’s large cast, a number of whom get to play roles they’ll have to wait decades for another chance at, most notably the absolutely marvelous Krottinger, nailing just about every Man In Chair moment (and there are many) and making the part very much his own. As the titular chaperone, Lane is quite definitely a star in the making, and can belt out a rousing anthem like “As We Stumble Along” with the best of them. St. Louis is fabulous too as triple-threat Janet, stopping the show with the show-stopping “Show Off,” cartwheels, encore, and all. A sensational Cuomo may set the production’s laugh record with his hilarious take on the outrageously full-of-himself Adolpho. (All that’s missing is the Latin Casanova’s signature “Whaaaaaaat?”) Boy-next-door Moynihan is an infectiously likable Robert, tapping like Gene Kelly to “Cold Feets” with the equally talented and charismatic Rudolph as his fleet-footed dance partner. Gravel-voiced Miller and dumb blonde extraordinaire Willis are a hoot and a half as Feldzieg and Kitty. As for those pastry-chef gangsters (usually cast as look-alikes), here the roles go to bantamweight Labes and light heavyweight Hobbs, giving classic comic duos like Abbott and Costello a run for their money with their pun-tastic work. Speaking of classic duos, Bernosky and Johnson don’t miss a beat as dotty Mrs. Tottendale and her straight-man Underling, the former recalling a young Goldie Hawn. Storrs’ spunky turn as Trix The Aviatrix is a winner as well, and A.J. Helfet has a cute cameo as a Miss Saigon-loving super with a Scottish burrrrrrrr.

MTR doubles the size of the Broadway ensemble from four to eight (all terrific), the better to allow choreographer Matthew McFarland the opportunity to stage big Broadway-style production numbers. McFarland’s inventive choreography reveals a quadruple-threat star in the making, the veteran 21-year-old already having already demonstrated his acting-singing-dancing prowess way back when I first saw him at the Taper in 13.

Musical director Madeline Myers conducts a tiptop four-piece band, featuring Myers on piano, Brandyn Phillips on trumpet, Austin Chanu on reeds, and Jarrett Tracy on percussion.

A much simplified scenic design proves that The Drowsy Chaperone works quite well indeed without the visual pyrotechnics of the Broadway original, allowing Hannah Kim’s imaginative costumes to dazzle, particularly as lit by technical and lighting director Madighan Stehly. (And yes, they do manage to have an aeroplane onstage, though I won’t tell you how.) Emma Bramble has contributed an effective sound design as well. Charlotte Mary Wen is assistant to the choreographer, Victoria Tam scenic painter and assistant costume designer, Kelly Ridder stage manager, Rebecca Esquivel assistant stage manager, and Alex Underwood assistant technical director. Liffany Chen receives program design credit. Crew members include Underwood and Kimberlee Holland.

Like Into The Woods and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The Drowsy Chaperone proves a perfectly wonderful gift to university theater departments, offering not merely a few but literally a baker’s dozen showcases for student talent. That it’s one of the most delightful, satisfying Broadway musicals of the past decade is icing on the cake.

Massman Theatre at USC. Through Sunday January 22. (All performances sold out.)

–Steven Stanley
January 19, 2012

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