Updated: Oct 4, 2022
In the opening moments of the irresistible musical “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a voice from the darkened outdoor stage at Muckenthaler Cultural Center breaks the silence, reflecting on the pre-curtain prayers of the perennially disappointed theatergoer. "I hate theater," the voice says. "Well, it's so disappointing, isn't it?” Wistfully recalling a time when first-nighters tingled with anticipation of what the Gershwins or Cole Porter had in store for them, the unseen speaker then laments that now, it’s “Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?” You could hear the laughs already building in the air.
A witty billet-doux from musical theater lovers to the frothy tuners of the 1920s, this refreshing cocktail of a show, which comes from the brilliant minds at The Electric Company Theatre (their 9th show as resident theater at the Muck) gets the audience on its side in the opening minutes and keeps them there for the duration. Sure, the score, by Second City alumni Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, is pastiche, and purists can quibble about its period authenticity. But like “The Producers,” this is superior, smartly crafted lampoonery and no less entertaining for being so.
The tour guide for the show’s nostalgic dip into the past is an unprepossessing theater obsessive in a knitted sweater vest, sitting alone in a comfortable chair, played by a colorful Jimmy Hippenstiel (with over 20 years as Executive Artistic Director of MTAOC; you may have seen him as Barnaby in “Hello Dolly”) and named only Man in Chair. In what is clearly one of many “blue” days, he resorts to his record collection — “Yes, records” — for comfort, selecting the original cast, two-disc recording of forgotten 1928 musical comedy “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
As soon as needle hits vinyl, the flat light in the Man’s character-filled studio apartment (including an oversized refrigerator) takes on a magical glow (the work of lighting designer Matt Mankiewicz), the screechy-scratchy recording turns into a beautiful full orchestra of sound, and the stage is suddenly populated by figures from the Prohibition-era.
Watching from his armchair, Mr. Hippenstiel’s Man in Chair is torn between his desire to absorb every moment of the show as it unfolds and his need to give us his own personal footnotes and extensive trivial knowledge, as he frequently brings the audience in and out of the fantasy.
Musicals from the genre of "The Drowsy Chaperone" had a renewed vogue in the mid-20th century, with works that ranged from pure parody ("Dames at Sea" in 1968) to retooled versions of the real thing ("No, No, Nanette" in 1971). The difference between these earlier productions and "The Drowsy Chaperone," which originally debuted in 1998 in Toronto and opened on Broadway in 2006, is that the commentary was built into the style of the performances. In this case, the Man in Chair does practically all of the heavy lifting.
With its ingenious narrative framework and entrancing performances — led by Hayden Magnum (“Spongebob The Musical;” Mr. Magnum replaces Brad Bong for this performance) as the toothy and toothsome Robert Martin, a lonely, musical-loving schlemiel with a hyperactive fantasy life and Katie McGhie (“Bonnie & Clyde”) as Janet Van de Graaff, star of Feldzieg’s Follies and the showgirl heroine of his dreams, but still a little on the fence about the marriage — "The Drowsy Chaperone" seduces its audience into a constant stream of giggles and chuckles.
Janet is attractive, vivacious, and loves being the center of attention, maybe a tad too much. But talented? Very much so. Just listen to those belts! Robert, her betrothed, is deeply in love with Janet, and is the token 1920s leading man – debonair, dashing, a little hammy, but sincere…and a matinee idol!
With Ms. Van de Graaff as star of the Feldzieg Follies, she's the darling of the Broadway stage, and a lot of money from heavy investors is riding on her name to sell it. But she's set to be married, and Mr. Feldzieg (Stephen Reifenstein; “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”), her producer, is being threatened with bodily harm by two gangsters (Michael Reehl and Jared Lindsay) employed by his chief investor (very similar scene to the gangsters-turned-actors in “Kiss Me Kate”). Disguised as pastry chefs, these two pun-happy thugs threaten Feldzieg to stop the wedding, in order to ensure Janet's participation in the next production of Feldzieg's Follies. In order to save himself, Feldzieg enlists Adolpho (Alfonso Neavez - Electric Company Theatre Board Member), a bumbling, overacting Latin Lothario (“I Am Adolpho”), to seduce Janet and spoil her relationship with Robert. One of the funniest scenes in theatre.
Meanwhile, Janet is already having doubts about her groom. Disguising herself as another woman, she tests Robert and tempts him into kissing her, and a massive misunderstanding emerges. The plot incorporates mistaken identities, dream sequences, spit takes, a deus ex machina, an unflappable English butler, an absent-minded dowager, a ditzy chorine, a harried best man, and Janet's "Drowsy" Chaperone, played in this show-within-a-show by blowzy Grande Dame of the Stage, Karen Rymar (OCSA Director of Arts Enrichment; “Into the Woods”), as the strutting, martini-swigging vamp, specializing in "rousing anthems" and not above upstaging the occasional co-star.
On board to lend nostalgia-enhancing authenticity to this make-believe, champagne and caviar world is Shayanne Ortiz, who plays Mrs. Tottendale, a ditsy, feathery-voiced rich woman. Flighty, eccentric, often times forgetful, and very funny, she is absolutely charming, bubbly and oblivious to the confusion her behavior generates in other people. And James McFarlane (who plays an inflexibly proper butler with an understated sense of humor, simply known as Underling) performs spit take after spit take with gusto, as well as a sweet, soft-shoe duet, “Love is Always Lovely in the End” with Mrs. Tottendale when they discover their love for each other (but prompts Man in Chair to wonder with a touch of irritation…”Don’t you think someone must have been aware of the awkward sexual connotation of that title”).
The wafer-thinness of the droll plot is an essential element of the comedy, and Lambert and Morrison have written some sparkling comic numbers, notably Janet’s “Show Off,” in which Ms. McGhie’s character feigns fatigue from the spotlight, only to dazzle with numerous costume and key changes, cartwheels and splits, plate-spinning, snake-charming, target-shooting and Houdini feats.
Other high points include Mr. Magnum and Ryan Lee’s (Netflix: “Never Have I Ever”) George, Robert's anxious, dim-witted best man, in the tap-happy “Cold Feets” and Ms. Rymar’s inappropriate, hilariously self-aggrandizing inspirational anthem “As We Stumble Along.” Of course, we need a cute love duet so why not have a blind-folded Robert, on roller skates, meet his girl posing as a French lady? Result: “Accident Waiting to Happen” that hints as a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance tune in the style of Gershwin or Berlin.
Somewhat arbitrarily, we also have a visit from a fly-by aviatrix named Trix (the remarkable Angie D. Watson; “Romeo & Juliet”) who helps lift the audience into a helium paradise of pure pleasure with “I Do, I Do in the Sky.”
What’s more remarkable, the show, which won five Tony Awards, is sufficiently steeped in musical theater lore to tickle aficionados while its charm and laughs never risk shutting out broader applause. Brian Johnson confidently marshals a large cast in a show whose metatheatrical action combines separate, intertwining playing fields without changing the main set. Helping maintain that buoyancy are the inventive set designs of said director and Kerry Ufholtz and Tana Carmichael’s vividly splendid costumes.
THE ELECTRIC COMPANY THEATRE PRESENTS: “THE DROWSY CHAPERONE,” Book by Bob Martin & Don McKellar; Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison; Directed by Brian Johnson; Choreography by Emily Taylor; Musical Direction by Nathaniel Brown; Intimacy Coordination by Callie Prendiville Johnson; Sets by Brian Johnson; Set Coordination by Kerry Ufholtz; Costumes by Tana Carmichael; Lighting by Matt Mankiewicz; Sound by Andrew Border; Wigs by Kat Scott; Production Stage Management by Wade Williamson.
WITH: Jimmy Hippenstiel (Man in Chair), Karen Rymar (The Chaperone), Hayden Magnum for Brad Bong (Robert Martin), Katie McGhie (Janet Van de Graaff), Angie D. Watson (Trix the Aviatrix), Stephen Reifenstein (Mr. Feldzieg), Madeline Neavez (Kitty), Michael Reehl (Gangster #1), Jared Lindsay (Gangster #2), Alfonso Neavez (Adolpho), Shayanne Ortiz (Mrs. Tottendale), James McFarlane (Underling), Ryan Lee (George), Jose Orozco (The Super); Wyatt Logan, Camille Vargas, Aimee Noelle Ordaz, Bailey Curtis, Brennen Logan, Miles Henry, Ron Gutterman, Gavin Hamze (Ensemble).
ORCHESTRA: Vicki Schindele, Jim Percy, Charles Heiden, Jack Trieffenbach, Sandy Heiden, Shauna McFadden, Dwayne Takeda, Bryan Frawley.
Performances are September 20th-22nd at 7:30PM, September 25th-28th at 7:30PM at Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W Malvern Ave, Fullerton, CA 92833. Tickets are $25 General Admission, and running time is two hours. For Tickets, visit: https://www.electriccompanytheatre.org/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Jon Blea