The Drowsy Chaperone, Broadway’s Valentine to Musical Theater, has been given an intimate Orange County staging at Santa Ana’s Theatre Out, one that makes it abundantly clear why the 2006 multiple-Tony winner is one of this past decade’s best—and most original—new musicals.
Broadway aficionados will surely recognize themselves in the show’s enthusiastic narrator, known simply as Man In Chair (Christopher Spencer), 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 fill his tiny NYC walk-up, Man In Chair’s drab apartment becomes (in his imagination) the foyer of Tottendale Manor, with guests arriving for the wedding of Broadway star Janet Van de Graff (Nicola Barrett) to oil tycoon Robert Martin (Lee Kociela). There’s Robert’s best man George (Joey Ruggiero), “Feldzieg Follies” impresario Mr. Feldzeig (Matt Carvin) and his “dumb blonde” girlfriend Kitty (a raven-haired Tina Nguyen), a pair of gangsters masquerading as pastry chefs (Luis Ochoa and Julian Ronquillo), Latin lothario Aldolpho (Miguel Cardenas), and Janet’s Drowsy (i.e. tipsy) Chaperone (Shannon Page). Completing the cast are lady of the manor Mrs. Tottendale (Sherry Domerego), her loyal Underling (Richard Comeau), an aviatrix named Trix (Laura De Lano), and a trio of servants, reporters, aviators, etc. (Paloma Armijo, Brandon Kallen, and Alexis Stansfield).
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.
Theatre Out’s Drowsy Chaperone benefits enormously from the presence of Man In Chair Spencer, back home in Orange County following two years of National Touring with Disney’s Beauty And The Beast, his nameless chair-sitter earning every bit as many laughs as Men In Chair (Man In Chairs?) who have preceded him, with an added plus—a poignancy that makes us aware of the comfort and joy that musical theater can provide even the loneliest of souls.
I’ve seen multiple Drowsy Chaperones in the years since first catching its pre-Broadway run at the Ahmanson. What sets Theatre Out’s apart is the sense that the musical-within-the-musical is actually taking place inside the sort of lonely, cramped apartment Man In Chair would call home, taking what for another Broadway musical might be a drawback—staging it in a space only a fraction of the size of a Great White Way palace—and making it an asset.
Janet, Robert, Aldolpho, Feldzieg, Kitty, and the rest are never more than feet or even inches from Man In Chair, and when he leaves said chair, he is quite literally surrounded by the musical emanating from his record player and coming back to life inside his mind. Having Main In Chair so constantly close to the action allows us to keep him ever in our eye, and the joy, make that the ecstasy he feels as he watches and listens to his most beloved of musicals is written on MIC Spencer’s grown-up Charlie Brown face like never before.
Carnevale’s direction may well be his best ever. Theatre Out’s co-founder understands what makes The Drowsy Chaperone a great musical, and though not everyone in its cast matches the performances given by its three or four standouts, Carnevale has them all on the right page. And the way he has tweaked Chaperone’s grand finale ever so slightly gives the production a bittersweet denouement I’ve never seen before—and one that works.
Page’s quirky Chaperone, Barrett’s vivacious Janet, Kociela’s dashing Robert, Ruggiero’s charming George, and De Lano’s spunky Trix all have their stellar moments, as do Ochoa and Ronquillo’s delightfully mismatched pair of “pastry chefs.” Chance Theater treasures Domerego and Comeau make Mrs. Tottendale and Underling’s “spit gag” among the funniest (and without doubt the wettest) I’ve seen. And Carvin and Nguyen’s hilarious Feldzeig and Kitty are straight out of a Warner Brothers Looney Toon and all the more delicious for it. (Nguyen’s Kitty in particular is a gem.) Ensemble members Armijo, Kallen, and Stansfield (with occasional assistance from De Lano) fill multiple cameos with flair. Best of all (and matching the finest Aldolphos I’ve seen) is Cardenas, who not only milks every single one of the Latin Lothario’s laughs to perfección, his unique uno-dos-tres take on Aldolpho’s signature “Whaaaaat?” is inspired.
Choreographer Lindsay Martin has created some pizzazzy dance sequences, Kociela’s and Ruggiero’s “Cold Feet” the show-stoppingest among them, though this is one instance where a small playing/dancing area does prove a hindrance to making the Drowsy Chaperone as dancy as some of those before it.
Musical director Gabrielle Maldonado gets top marks for the cast’s vocals and vocal harmonies performed to prerecorded tracks, a smart choice given the need for a Broadway-big orchestra, and this is one Theatre Out musical where unamped voices not only work, they are never overpowered by backup tracks.
Big stage Drowsy Chaperones require a Man-In-Chair apartment the size of a dozen NYC bachelor flats combined. At Theatre Out, Carnevale and Joey Baital give us a teeny-tiny Big Apple studio we can believe Man In Chair calls home, its many framed Playbills and headshots making us believe even more … and the “refrigerator” door is a delightful touch. Costumes and lighting earn high marks as well, and though EB Bohks wigs may not be Broadway caliber, they do help recreate the 1920s period.
Chelsea Mundy is stage manager and Ryan Cutler and Amy McBride are assistant stage managers.
Though there’s definitely something to be said for a Broadway-scale Drowsy Chaperone, Theatre Out’s intimate staging makes its smaller space one of the production’s major plusses, and well worth seeing for that very reason, even by those who make have caught one of its previous local big-stage incarnations.
Following bare the musical, The Dying Gaul, and Corpus Christi, The Drowsy Chaperone proves yet another winner for Carnevale and Baital’s company in their first full season on 4th Street, making Theatre Out the Theatre In-place to be on a Friday or Saturday Santa Ana night.
Theatre Out, 402 W. 4th Street, Santa Ana.
June 27, 2014
Photos: David C. Carnevale