Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Donald Giovanni in Cornlandia: A Picnic Operetta
A play-within-a-play (or, as the original cast album cover proclaims, "a musical within a comedy"), The Drowsy Chaperone starts with a man identified only as Man in Chair welcoming us to his shabby but tidy apartment, where he describes the virtue of listening to musical cast record albumsyes, record albums, the old typeto lift his spirits when he is struck by unspecified sadness, the emotional state he refers to as "blue." He conveys the sense that he feels "blue" quite often, including the present moment. His favorite of all is an old 1928 musical The Drowsy Chaperone, and he enjoins us to listen with him. He places it on his record player, energized by the scratchy sounds of well-worn vinyl discs, and settles into his plush armchair. As he listens, the characters take shape in his living room, as we see his imagination come to life. Along the way he feeds us all kinds of trivia about the careers and scandals of the various cast members, the parts he especially loves, and those sections here and there he finds fault witheven recommending we ignore the lyrics to one number ("The Bride's Lament") completely and focus on the lovely melody.
The made-up show we are listening to is a silly romp with a central story around a big Broadway star, Janet Van de Graaff, about to give up her show business career to marry oil tycoon Robert Martin. Her producer, Mr. Feldzieg (Flo Ziegfeld must have been busy) is determined to stop his top draw act from leaving his Follies, egged on by a pair of buffoonish gangsters disguised as wedding pastry chefs who remind Feldzieg of the big bucks he owes to their boss. Kitty, a ditzy blonde chorine keeping Feldzieg company, sees the prospect of Janet leaving the show as an opportunity for her to step into the limelight, oblivious to the fact that she has absolutely no talent.
For no discernible reason, the wedding is being held in the home of wealthy but doddering Mrs. Tottendale, who is protected from creeping senility by her faithful, long-suffering butler Underling (really, that's his name). Also on hand is George, Robert's affable best man; Aldolfo, a fading Latin lover of silent films; and the title character, charged with chaperoning Janet, most especially to keep her and her groom from seeing one another before the wedding ceremony. As for being drowsy, this is an old use of the term that means "tipsy," or to describe the character more fully, "hammered." There is also Trixie, an aviatrix who arrives near the end to whisk the newlyweds off to a honeymoon in Rio and turns out to play a far bigger role in bringing the proceedings to the inevitable happy ending.
The plot line of The Drowsy Chaperonethe show we see in Man in Chair's imaginationis chock full of early musical comedy clichés: a tap dancing groom and best man, a wacky comedy team (the pastry chefs), a gold-digging blonde, mistaken identities, concealed identities, a mercenary producer, a wealthy but befuddled widow, a starchy butler, a production number built around emotional turmoil, feats of daring (that would be roller skating while blindfolded while singing "Accident Waiting to Happen"), and a full throated anthem, the rousing "As We Stumble Along"even if, as sung by the Chaperone, the anthem is an ode to drunkenness. All of these are served to us with great affection.
The comedy in which this musical is inserted is the tale of Man in Chair. Throughout his narration, he shares bits and pieces about himself. We see his frustration when the solace of his record album and the escape it offers him, is disrupted by ringing phones, doorbells, a power outage, even a skip in the record itself. Being ill-fit for the rhythms of the world outside his window, he finds friendship in the whacky characters of this dated musical, especially the Chaperone. It is not that she is wiser, kinder, or particularly more interesting than the others. It is because she is larger than life, large enough to enfold the smallness of Man in Chair's life. His story is a comedy, presented with wit and finesse, but it speaks to emotional needs absent in the inhabitants of the musical, who solve all of their woes with a song, a dance, or a surprise entrance.
The extremely clever, Tony-winning book is by Bob Martin and Don McKellar. Its tuneful, and Tony winning, score by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison draws affectionately on the musical styles of the 1920s and 1930s, with strong opportunities for specialty and full ensemble numbers. Michael Matthew Ferrell both directs and choreographs this production. He skillfully makes the dreary apartment setting we first encounter come alive with the energy of the world of musical comedy, and maintains a heightened sense of foolishness throughout, while drawing down the energy to ensure that Man in Chair's story comes through as well. The choreography is rousing, especially the tap dance duet "Cold Feets" and "Toledo Surprise," a number that spins a threat of gangland mayhem into a tribute to the joy of song and dance.
As our host for the evening, Man in Chair is a critical role, and Tod Petersen plays it to a T. His Man in Chair is at times a bit whiney, at times catty, yet his heart is always open wide. At various times, as he listens to the cast album, he joins in the action on stage, awkwardly taking part in the dance, joining in a chorus, or sitting, unseen, beside his beloved Chaperone. Petersen does this with no self-consciousness, truly lifted out of his blues by the earnest frivolity of the musical.
C. Ryan Shipley is the epitome of a matinee-idol groom, with sharp-chinned good looks, a powerful voice, and nimble feet. As Janet, Angela Steele conveys the angst of a conflicted bride, handles comedy lines well, and has a lovely voice. However, she falls just short of the high bar on two big numbers, "Show Off" and "Bride's Lament." She has all the right ingredients, but the extra element to push over the top is missing. The same is true of Brittany Parker's Chaperone, who delivers the comedy with brio and offers strong voice to "As We Stumble Along" but lacks the charisma to be the stand-out among her peers she is intended to be. Mike Tober is hilarious as Aldolfo, preening ridiculously and using a horrendous accent to great comic effect as a Latin lothario from central casting. Gregory Adams as Mr. Feldzieg has the sharp edge of a showbiz wheeler-dealer and does a great dance turn during "Toledo Surprise." Christian LaBissoniere and Seth Tychon as the two gangsters, and Berit Bassinger as Kitty, play their comic parts with energy and sass. Wendy Short-Hayes and Alan Holasek are amusing (if perhaps a bit too young) as Mrs. Tottendale and Underling, making the most of their song and soft-shoe "Love is Always Lovely."
Artistry productions typically have strong design elements and The Drowsy Chaperone is no exception. Ed Gleeman's costumes capture the sophistication and excess of the late 1920s and fill the stage with color. Curtis Phillips has designed a stunningly dreary apartment home for Man in Chair, as well as small set pieces that move in and out to effectively transform that space into the parlor, patio, garden, and boudoirs of Mrs. Tottendale's estate, and for a big finish, sends in Trixie's full size, prop-driven airplane. Swell work!
Given that The Drowsy Chaperone has become a staple of community and school theater, you are likely to have other opportunities to see this funny, tuneful, affectionate show. However, you are not likely to find a production with more energy, sharper focus, or genuine heart than the one now on Artistry's stage. Top it off with Tod Petersen's star performance, and this is the one to see. And if you have seen it before, as I have, you will be charmed anew by Artistry's production.
The Drowsy Chaperone continues through September 11, 2016, in the Schneider Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington, MN. Tickets: $38.00 - $41.00; Age 62 and up: $33.00 - $36.00; Age 18 and younger: $26.00 - $29.00. Student Rush, $15.00, available 15 minutes before the performance - cash only, valid ID required. For tickets call 952-563-8375 or go to artistrymn.org.
Music and Lyrics: Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison; Book: Bob Martin and Don McKellar; Director and Choreographer: Michael Matthew Ferrell; Music Director and Conductor: Anita Ruth; Assistant Director/Choreographer: Kirsten Iiams; Set Design: Curtis Phillips; Costume Design: Ed Gleeman; Lighting Design: Grant Merges; Sound Design: Chris Moen; Sound Engineer: John Acarregui; Properties Design: Abbee Warmboe; Wig Design: Paul Bigot; Production Stage Manager: Topaz Cook; Production Manager/Technical Director: Chris Carpenter; Assistant Stage Manager: Lee Johnson Cast: Gregory Adam (Mr. Feldzieg), Berit Bassinger (Kitty), Kathleen A. Hardy (Trix, the Aviatrix), Alan Holasek (Underling), Christian LaBissoniere (Gangster One), Brittany Parker (The Drowsy Chaperone), Tod Peterson (Man in Chair), C. Ryan Shipley (Robert Martin), Wendy Short-Hays (Mrs. Tottendale), Angela Steele (Janet Van de Graaff), Carl Swanson (George), Mike Tober (Adolpho), Seth Tychon (Gangster Two). Ensemble: Daniel Hodges, France Roberts, Carrie McCollum Smith, Elly Stahlke, Krysti Wiita, Brittany Marie Wilson.