Updated: Jun 1
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NOV15, 2022 HUNTINGTON BEACH —
The Drowsy Chaperone first started in 1997, when Don McKellar (1999: “eXistenZ”), Lisa Lambert (2004: “Childstar”), Greg Morrison (“Second City National Touring”) and several other friends created a spoof of old musicals for the stag party of best friends, Bob Martin and Janet van de Graaf (if those names sound familiar, they are two of the characters in “The Drowsy Chaperone”).
In its first incarnation, there was no Man in Chair, the musical styles ranged from the 1920s to the 1940s, and the jokes were more risqué. When the show was reshaped for the Toronto Fringe Festival, Bob Martin became a co-writer, fine-tuning the script and creating the Man in Chair character to serve as a narrator/commentator for the piece. But then, Martin had never been interested in championing, say, the next Gypsy Rose. Instead, the Second City-trained actor turned his pen and pasquinade to Broadway’s most vulnerable idiosyncrasy, its self-professed geekdom.
What followed was the creation of a unique production which garnered critical acclaim during its Broadway bow in 2006, winning five Tony Awards including Best Book of a Musical by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, and Best Original Score by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison — and is now receiving a rousing replay at Golden West College Theater Arts through November 20th under the most stalwart direction of Broadway and West End veteran Martie Ramm.
What makes it more than merely an exercise in nostalgia is its simple but ingenious framing. When the lights go down at the start, they stay down: we sit in the empty darkness that precedes every show, and Charles Ketter’s voice, refracted through a twitchy, keyed-up anxiety, floats across the auditorium. "I hate theatre," he says. "Well, it's so disappointing, isn't it?" And he proceeds to tell us the prayer he delivers before every show: that it will be fun, that it will be short, that the actors will strictly observe the fourth wall and stay out of the audience, and that it will deliver an escape from the mundane travails of ordinary life.
“You know what I do when I’m sitting in a darkened theater waiting for the curtain to rise? I pray. Dear God, please let it be a good show. And, let it be short, oh Lord in heaven, please. . . I just want a story and a few good songs that will take me away. I just want to be entertained. I mean, isn’t that the point? Amen.”
The lights lift on a small, unimpressive apartment to reveal a bow-tied gentleman with a sing/song speech pattern depicted by Mr. Ketter, whose character doesn’t even have a name – he is simply called the Man in Chair. He is a musical theatre geek. For him, Elton John is a decadent shadow of Gershwin, and Cameron Mackintosh’s spectaculars are an unspeakable vulgarity. The Man has the blues, or at least an ill-defined apprehension he calls the blues, and to combat his melancholy, he proposes to share one of his favorite albums – a 1928 cast recording of a chestnut called “The Drowsy Chaperone.” He fussily puts it on the turntable and the overture begins. After a few initial tinny, scratchy renderings, the music suddenly becomes a robust big band sound and reveals a more glamorous world as the characters enter one by one…through his refrigerator…and the musical comes to life, played out in his apartment. The musical itself is a ludicrous parody, performed by an outstanding cast with an ebullience that lifts it even beyond its distinguished score.
It’s wittily chronicled throughout by the lugubrious Man in Chair, with occasional unwelcome interruptions from the “real” life he wishes so desperately to escape. He has, in fact, never attended a performance of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” yet proffers both staging and historical annotation for the piece. What makes our narrator such a winning guide is that he feels this conflict deeply.
Built on an ingenious construct, the musical serves as both nostalgic homage and a trenchant pundit of a bygone period when Broadway trifles were churned out at an assembly-line rate, an era all but unknown to even the most embedded theater aficionado. Also labeled the Golden Age of Tin Pan Alley music, it was hardly the golden age of the Broadway musical. Rather, it was a pre-Golden Era when productions teetered on transparent razor-thin plots, rousing 11 o’clock showstoppers, stock characters (many who were plainly offensive stereotypes), cynical star turns, endless spit-takes, and awful vaudevillian bits strung together.
As Man in Chair listens to his recording, all the while providing elucidation on the action, the stage becomes resplendent with a glamorous star, a debonair groom, an absent-minded dowager, an acerbic butler, a lovable lothario, comic gangsters, a Broadway impresario, a ditzy starlet, and of course, a tipsy . . . er, make that drowsy, chaperone. And all of these strong personalities are participating in the broadly confected subplot of a Follies showgirl who’s giving up the stage for marriage, at the extreme displeasure of shady producer Feldzeig (Salvatore Messina) who is in hock to gangsters (Noah Doody and Maximus Dorsey) posing as pastry chefs.
Then, somewhere in the middle of his deep analysis and play by play narration that would rival NFL's Frank Gifford, Man in Chair experiences a power outage and a skipping record, both of which yield smartly wrested stagnations in the outlier production.
And right before Act Two, during a quick restroom break for our hero (by now he has consumed a cup of tea, a brandy and a juice box), an improperly filed LP (“The Enchanted Nightingale”) briefly turns our show into an entirely different musical — a “King & I”-like riff with the great lyric, “What is it about the Asians that fascinates the Caucasians?”
Artfully calling the shots on this production, Director-choreographer Martie Ramm has mounted a highly stylized musical imbued with elongated tap numbers ("Cold Feets" featuring JT Nelson and Whitney Ackerman) and walloping vocals. Waxing on caricature, sexual innuendo, pratfall slapstick, and pun-riddled schtick as its central keynote, the show retains the asocial frippery of Man in Chair, the ultimate desperation that jettisons an individual to the welcoming arms of a ten-minute kickline reprise, and a multi-couple airborne marriage ceremony.
Yet as befits most productions from the prestigious Golden West College Arts Department, a remarkably adroit cast has helped create a masterpiece of the work. Amanda MacDonald possesses not only vocal astuteness that both carouses and emboldens leggy Broadway starlet Janet Van De Graaf, but she could also hold her own in any gymnastics competition.
Ms. MacDonald gives a gloriously artificial, deadpan account of a woman who is almost as in love with love as she is with herself. In a little number called "Show Off" — in which Janet sings that she no longer needs attention while doing everything she can (including cartwheels, costume changes, key changes, the splits, plate-spinning, snake-charming, target-shooting and Houdini feats) to hold the spotlight — Ms. MacDonald lifts the audience into a helium paradise of pure pleasure.
Jason Stout and Lisa Stout (married in real life) are in delicious comic form as the reluctant, if addled, lovers Underling and Mrs. Tottendale. And Megan Cherry churns a shrewdly droll turn as the eponymous character, a woman prone to inhaling multiple vodka tonics over a designated assistantship to the betrothed Janet.
Trailed by Kitty (Novelee Smedley), a showgirl who dreams of stepping from the chorus to become a leading lady, Feldzeig enlists the simmering, self-absorbed European lover Adolpho (Seven Perrin), the self-proclaimed “King of Romance,” to bed Janet and ruin the wedding. Instead, in a playfully amusing scene, Adolpho becomes a cropper of the cynical, always tipsy chaperone (Megan Cherry) who saunters her way through the production, highball in hand.
From unashamedly light-hearted exuberance to nonstop giggles, this highly entertaining musical within a musical could be the most fun you have this season. The songs themselves are intentionally trite, full of labored metaphors, caricature and lampoonish satire. Mr. Ketter’s character, of course, is the first to grimace, but then points out that, "well, you will enjoy the songs just the same."
GOLDEN WEST COLLEGE THEATER ARTS PRESENTS, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE; Music & Lyrics by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison with Book by Bob Martin & Don McKellar; Director and Choreographer: Martie Ramm. Music Director & Conductor: Rick Heckman. Scenic Design: Tim Mueller. Lighting Design: Matt Schleicher. Sound & Projection Design: Dave Mickey. Costume Design: Amanda Martin. Makeup, Wig & Hair Design: Michon Gruber. Production Stage Manager: Hannah Jepsen.
WITH: Charles Ketter, Lisa Stout, Jason Stout, Whitney Ackerman, JT Nelson, Salvatore Messina, Novelee Smedley, Noah Doody, Maximus Dorsey, Seven Perrin, Amanda MacDonald, Megan Cherry, Nicole Martensen, Andrew Eckstone, Colleen King, Lizzy Legere, Chad Phillips.
“The Drowsy Chaperone runs November 11th through November 20th with only four performances remaining: Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30PM, and Sunday at 2PM, at Golden West College Mainstage Theater, 15751 Gothard Street Huntington Beach, CA 92647. Tickets are $22-25 and can be purchased at www.gwctheater.com/.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Greg Parks