THEATRE REVIEW: Goodspeed Musicals’ ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ is wonderful on every level
The Drowsy Chaperone
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Choreographed by Chris Bailey
Directed by Hunter Foster
“No matter how well you play this happy …”
Ira Gershwin once wrote: “Applause, applause! We like applause because/It means when it is striking us the audience is liking us.” In no show written in this later century has this been more apparent than in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” For one thing, the incidental leading man, known simply as “Man In Chair” loves Broadway musicals. Nothing gives him a thrill like putting on a recording of a show from the bygone era when musicals were musical, not confusical, when the stories were about love and the silly mistakes lovers make rather than about psychotic breaks and lovers shot and killed, when the tunes were danceable, entranceable and romanceable. He just loves to imagine how they looked and sounded and made the audience feel—that wonderful need to applaud not for the drama, but for the fun of it all. Man In Chair has a problem called loneliness. But he has the cure. One of his favorite remedies for the blues, a state from which he often suffers, is the original cast recording of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which he is happy to play for us. So he does. He knows everything there is to know about the show, the creators, the cast and he willingly—slyly, even—shares his knowledge. The show that surrounds the show is the show to watch in the Goodspeed Musicals edition of this Canadian masterpiece. Oh, the show inside this show is wonderful on every level, but Man In Chair as played by John Scherer really is the show. There isn’t a single moment when his reactions aren’t as spectacular a vision as anything the old musical could summon to mind.
Scherer is amazingly spry and agile as he sings and dances along with the stars. He never distracts us from what the show folk are doing, and yet he maintains a hold on us: We never let him out of our sight no matter how spectacular or romantic or sweet or comic the moment may be upstage—his downstage-right chair is the place to be.
Author Bob Martin, who originally wrote this show as a wedding gift for his wife, Janet, is a mixture of Man in Chair and the show’s own romantic hero, Robert Martin, played here with strength and beauty by Clyde Alves. As the bridegroom on his wedding day, Robert has “Cold Feets” and is a self-confessed “Accident Waiting to Happen.” His best man, George, is played by Tim Falter. The two men duet wonderfully, yet the true-blue best man manages to screw things up pretty badly, not that Robert doesn’t develop his own troubles when he kisses a French girl. Both men perform their cliché roles to perfection.
The three bad men in the show are Mr. Feldzieg, the Broadway producer whose star is quitting show business to marry Robert Martin; and two gangsters disguised as pastry chefs. The gangsters are played by brothers Blakely and Parker Slaybaugh, and Feldzieg is portrayed by James Judy. It is their mission to stop the wedding and they attempt several times to do so. Feldzieg has brought a chorus girl, Kitty, to the wedding and she makes it her mission to present herself as the perfect replacement for the bride (in her Broadway show, though, not at the altar). Kitty is a hilarious Ruth Pferdehirt. When the four of them get caught up in a musical number, “Toledo Surprise,” it is amazing how many misunderstandings can become temporarily prominent. Chris Bailey’s delicious choreography gets some of its best moments in this number.
While we are always in the living room/kitchenette of Man In Chair’s apartment in New York, the show is set at the fabulous Long Island estate of Mrs. Tottendale, wonderfully played by Ruth Gottschall, who, along with her manservant, Underling, and a chorus of maids and attendants, gets caught up in the excitement of a wedding, never truly understands what’s going on and ultimately makes a romantic gesture all her own. Jay Aubrey Jones plays the patient, long-suffering Underling, who manages to grab something romantic himself during the proceedings. All of this makes this show fluffier than anything actually written in the 1920s, the time portrayed in the musical within the play.
Of course the show is a tribute to popular stardom and Janet Van De Graf, the bride-to-be, is the essence of youthful adulation. Stephanie Rothenberg expresses every element of this in her song, one of my personal favorites in this show, as she prepares to leave it all behind: “I don’t want to Show Off.” Rothenberg is a delight, complete with instant costume changes. She never makes Janet into a stereotype, which was a lovely performance choice since the role is written that way, and, in playing against type, she delivers a Janet we can like, appreciate and take heart in as she goes through the machinations of the men surrounding her.
As her chaperone, Jennifer Allen gives it her all, anthem-singing and everything. Her drowsiness comes from drinking champagne (and this is during the era of prohibition) and she just can’t get enough of it. In fact, when she finds she can’t be served, she pulls out her own spare bottle and goes for it. In spite of the potential sloppiness of drunken behavior when she finds herself the object of affection, she links arms with her fate and sings and dances to a fare-thee-well.
A favorite moment in this show is a designer’s dream when the wrong record gets placed on the turntable. Gregg Barnes’ original Broadway costumes are being used in this production, and they sparkle and twinkle and give the show a sumptuous look. The set by Howard Jones is just what it should be, and Kirk Bookman’s lighting design does what this show needs and does it superbly.
The comic leading man, Adolpho the gigolo, is played with humor and strength by John Rapson, who woos with perfect sangfroid any woman who comes within his sphere. He woos with his own name as the object of desire and he does it wonderfully well. His every appearance is a guarantee of laughter.
There is a janitor, or superintendent, who makes an appearance late in the play and brings with him the potential for a different sort of romance, but it is never allowed to evolve in this production (in the Broadway original, it perked but never poured). He is played by Evan Mayer, who, in his short appearance, manages to show the two sides of this man very well.
And then there’s Trix the aviatrix, the God-figure who makes things work out so well at the end of the play not just for Janet and Robert, but for all the lovers in the show and—wait for it—even for Man In Chair. Trix is played with gusto and perfectly shaped style by Danielle Lee Greaves. We know she is on her way from the opening number, but we wait a long time for her and, when she arrives, we are delighted, for she thrills us with her song about the joys of aviation, marriage and Rio de Janeiro.
The director for this Goodspeed Musicals production is Hunter Foster, star of the original “Urinetown,” whose own sister originated the role of Janet on Broadway. To say he has brought a familiarity with the piece and its style of performance to his job would be an understatement. He has done a remarkable job of restaging that original in a new way that works remarkably well. Though my one favorite moment is gone from this production, it was still one of those lovely Connecticut nights seeing such a fine production of this show, and to quote Ira Gershwin again, “ho, ho, ho—who’s got the last laugh now?”
Goodspeed Musicals, that’s who!
The Drowsy Chaperone plays at Goodspeed Musicals, 6 Main St., East Haddam, Connecticut, through Sunday, Nov. 25. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go online to goodspeed.org or call the box office at (860) 873-8668.