A fresh new crop of Cal State Fullerton musical theater majors breathe fresh new life into Broadway’s 2006 Valentine to musical theater, The Drowsy Chaperone, winner of 5 Tony Awards and a CSUF crowd-pleaser if there ever was one.
Diehard Broadway buffs will surely recognize themselves in the show’s giddy narrator Man In Chair (Joshua Johnson), who introduces us to the largely forgotten (and entirely fictional) 1928 Broadway musical that happens to share 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 replaced by musical director Mitchell Hanlon’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 (Kristina Dizon) to oil tycoon Robert Martin (Quentin Carbajal).
Along for the ride are a pair of gangsters masquerading as pastry chefs (Marquell Edward Clayton and Kyle Kayvaun Pazdel), “Feldzieg Follies” impresario Mr. Feldzeig (Joe Stein) and his dumb blonde girlfriend Kitty (Allison Schynert), Robert’s best man George (Cody Bianchi), Latin lothario Aldolpho (Ala Tiatia), and Janet’s Drowsy (i.e. tipsy) Chaperone (Erin Tierney).
Completing the cast are lady of the manor Mrs. Tottendale (Adriana Rodriguez), her loyal Underling (Colby Hamann), a gal-loving aviatrix named Trix (Kayla Contreras), and a great big bunch of servants, reporters, aviators, showgirls (and boys), and more, played by the multitasking Evan Barboa, Lily Bryson, Hannah Clair, Jeff Garrido, Scout Lepore, Matthew Ollson, Allison J. Parker, Olivia Pence, Anthony Michael Vacio, and Samantha Wojtaszek.
As we meet this delightful 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 Follies’ Feldzeig hiring a pair of pastry chef gangsters to put a stop to Janet’s wedding, thereby guaranteeing that his leading lady will stay right where she belongs—in Feldzeig’s Follies, a scheme that also includes persuading Aldolpho to seduce Janet out of Robert’s arms. Unfortunately for Feldzeig, 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.
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.
It’s hard to imagine a better vehicle for musical theater collegiates than The Drowsy Chaperone, if only for the number of showcase roles it offers, from romantic lead to featured sidekick to comic relief, a baker’s dozen of them in all, and though a few characters require age makeup, most of them work every bit as well performed by college kids as they would by older pros.
And it’s not just the thirteen leads who get to shine at CSUF. Minus salary considerations, Drowsy’s chorus gets beefed up from Broadway’s four to a grand total of ten, not only providing additional performance opportunities but allowing director Sarah Ripper and choreographer William F. Lett to create some flashy production numbers.
Under Ripper’s inspired direction, performances could not be more deliciously winning, beginning with MFA student Johnson’s Man In Chair, a role that won book co-writer Martin a Best Lead Actor in a Musical Tony (with hardly a note sung or step danced) and one that Johnson makes his quirky, endearing own.
Triple-threat Dizon shows off Broadway charm and flair as Janet opposite Carbajal’s dreamy Robert Martin, the latter revealing 42nd Street-ready tap pizzazz alongside the equally taptastic Bianchi as best friend/best man George.
Comedic duos don’t get any more dynamic or laugh-getting than Tierney’s dry delight of a Chaperone opposite Tiatia, as sensationally scene-stealing an Aldolpho as Aldolphos get; or Stein’s fabulously fast-talking Feldzieg and Schynert’s scrumptiously slow-thinking Kitty; or Rodriguez’s wonderfully wacky Mrs. Tottendale and Hamann’s scrumptiously stuffy Underling; or Clayton and Pazdel’s sensationally in-sync brothers from different mothers.
Contreras’s eleventh-hour solo as Aviatrix Trix is a winner too, with Borboa, Bryson, assistant choreographer Clair, Garrido, Lepore, Ollson, Parker, Pence, Vacio, and Wojtaszek providing fabulous song and dance support throughout, Ollson a particular delight in his cameo as Man In Chair’s apartment super.
Lett’s choreography sparkles both in individual showcase numbers like Dizon’s “Show Off” and Clayton and Pazdel’s “Cold Feet” and in full-cast extravaganzas like “Toledo Surprise.”
JR Luker’s impressive scenic design expands quite splendidly from bachelor apartment to stately manse, Bradley Lock’s costumes are the epitome of imagination and panache (kudos too to Leland Stephens for his nifty hair and makeup designs), and Katy Streeter lights all of the above to vivid perfection.
Ruben Bolivar is stage manager and Christina Bustos, Ruby Patchell, and Nicole Ross are assistant stage managers. Reed Flores is assistant director. David Nevell is dialect coach.
Few Broadway musicals of recent years stand up to repeat visits as entertainingly as The Drowsy Chaperone, a show that so won me over in its pre-Broadway Ahmanson Theatre engagement that I went back again and again. Seven productions later, I’m loving this magical, marvelous musical as much as ever, and never more so that at Cal State Fullerton, where Titan talent once again rocks.
Little Theatre, California State University Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton.
November 20, 2016
Photos: Jordan Kubat