The Norris Center For The Performing Arts couldn’t have picked a better musical, nor staged it more sparklingly, than their 2013-2014 3-Play Series season closer The Drowsy Chaperone, winner of 5 Tony Awards and quite possibly the most entertaining Valentine to musical theater ever.
Diehard Broadway buffs will surely recognize themselves in the show’s enthusiastic narrator, known simply as Man In Chair (Larry Raben), 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 the Norris’s tuneful pit orchestra, 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 (Jessica Ernest) to oil tycoon Robert Martin (Eric Michael Parker). There’s Robert’s best man George (Chris Daniel), “Feldzieg Follies” impresario Mr. Feldzeig (Greg Nicholas) and his dumb blonde girlfriend Kitty (Noelle Marion), a matched pair of gangsters masquerading as pastry chefs (Adam Trent and Jon M. Wailin), Latin lothario Aldolpho (Jeff Max), and Janet’s Drowsy (i.e. tipsy) Chaperone (Tracy Lore). Completing the cast are lady of the manor Mrs. Tottendale (Lindsay Brooks), her loyal Underling (Danny Michaels), an aviatrix named Trix (Lindsay Martin), and a quartet of servants, reporters, aviators, etc. (Melissa Glasgow, Katharine McDonough, Zack Salas, and Ricky Wagner).
As we meet this delicious 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.
Ever boyish L.A. musical theater treasure Raben proves an inspired choice for his maiden outing as Man In Chair, giving our tour guide a pitch-perfect blend of sparkle and heart that makes the role originated by Drowsy Chaperone co-creator Martin entirely his own.
Glamorous one-of-a-kind SoCal stage star Lore not only nails every one of the drowsy (and ever-woozy) chaperone’s laughs with trademark Tracy élan, she sings sensationally and chews the scenery to finely-hewn perfection, and never more so than opposite Max’s Aldolpho, the Chicago-based actor milking one laugh after another out of the hilariously-accented self-proclaimed Latin Lothario.
Charismatic, leggy New York-based stunner Ernest has the vocal and comedic chops to follow in original Janet Sutton Foster’s hard-to-fill footsteps opposite an ideally cast Parker, triple-threat-tastic as the ever-so handsome Robert. Parker also shares a snazzy tap duet with the terrific Daniel, who sings, dances, and acts the part of sidekick George with verve to spare.
Marion simply could not make for a more delectably dumb, enchantingly quirky Kitty opposite the delightful, dynamic Nicholas as impresario Feldzeig. Brooks is a deliciously dotty Mrs. Tottendale while Michaels milks multiple laughs as Underling, the duo making the mismatched pair’s “spit take” scene a guaranteed smash—or splash as the case may be.
Trent and Wailin couldn’t be in more outrageously scene-stealing sync as those pastry chef gangsters, while the scintillating Martin’s 11th hour cameo as Trix proves well worth waiting for.
Ensemble members Glasgow, McDonough, Salas, and Wagner bring pep and bounce to their numerous singing/dancing roles, with Salas a blue-collar laugh-getter as Man In Chair’s apartment building super.
Director James W. Gruessing, Jr., who played Feldzeig to perfection a few years back at The Drowsy Chaperone’s West Coast Regional Premiere, helms the Norris production with the expertise of someone who knows the show backwards and forwards. Ann Myers’ exuberant choreography pays tribute to the 1920s with 21st Century flair. Musical director Daniel Thomas conducts the Norris Center orchestra with accustomed pizzazz.
FCLO Musical Theatre’s set is a simplified take-off on David Gallo’s Tony-winning scenic design, but one that does the trick in the relative intimacy of the 450-seat Norris, and has been vividly lit by Christina Munich. The FCLO Musical Theatre costumes, coordinated by Christina Bayer, recall the period glitter of the Tony-winning Broadway originals. (Trix’s costume is by 3D Theatricals.) John Nobori’s sound design expertly mixes amped vocals and instrumentals, making it easy to understand both dialog and lyrics.
The Drowsy Chaperone is produced by Gruessing. Chris Warren Murry is production stage manager and Greg Forbess technical director.
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.”
Down at the Norris, this proves abundantly true—and then some.
Norris Center for the Performing Arts, 27570 Norris Center Drive, Rolling Hills Estates.
April 25, 2014
Photos: Ed Krieger