By James V. RuoccoA man.
Thus begins, "The Drowsy Chaperone," a bright and bouncy homage to the forgotten Broadway musicals of yesteryear that erupts into lighthearted fun for anyone willing to succumb to its over-the-top theatrics and dizzying musicality.
It also contains enough featherweight confection, chutzpah and jokey enthusiasm to knock the bejesus out of you or send you off to the emergency room in a state of candy floss frenzy from laughing so hard. Then again, that's the point, isn't it?
There's so much to see, appreciate, enjoy and applaud in this rousing Goodspeed Musicals' production, you'll not only be gobsmacked, but you'll probably want to see it again. It's that much fun.
A play-within-a-play, the musical takes its cue from a devoted Broadway musical lover's adoration for LP recordings, which, in this case, is the 1928 recording of "The Drowsy Chaperone," a family favorite that springs magically to life in his apartment as he sits off to the side, talking us through its silly, purposely transparent love story.
There are pauses, interruptions, mistakes and mishaps in between the commentary, designed to elicit laughs.....lots of them.... And one by one, the laughs keep coming and coming and coming right at you. There's also some deliciously candied plotting that toys with your senses if only because you're not exactly sure if things are real or imagined, if light cues are missed on purpose, if skips in the LP are intentional or if certain songs are part of "The Drowsy Chaperone" or some other dated Broadway musical. Regardless, more laughter ensues.
In the director's chair, Hunter Foster ("42nd Street," "Company," "Guys and Dolls") does a magnificent turn as spokesperson for this witty, nostalgic entertainment. From the opening tune, he creates a catchy build and momentum that prompts laughter in all the right places. To his credit, he also instills the material with a confidence and a tremendous vigor that keeps "The Drowsy Chaperone" moving merrily along without a hitch, glitch or hiccup.
Because this is a parody, Bob Martin and Don McKellar's book overflows with a trunk full of broad stereotypes, cartoonish buffoonery, shameless cliches, one-note dialogue, mistaken identities, spit takes, double entendres, occasional upstaging, wrong stage cues, constant preening and old LP's that skip or get stuck playing the same music and lyrics over and over.
An actor himself, Foster's knowledge of performance, musical theater, song execution and satire serves the material well. Upfront, he's in on the joke and so are we. The trick, of course, and one that Foster knows inside out, is that the actors on stage must play it straight without ever reaching for a laugh, going for a laugh or waiting for a laugh cue. One slight misstep and that's it. The show would stop dead in its tracks.
Luckily for us, that never happens. Foster's treatment of "The Drowsy Chaperone" is polished, airy, giggly and syrupy-sweet. Nothing happens just to happen No one steps out of place or claws at the walls for attention. Everyone knows their place, their character, their jokes, their line delivery and how to act and react in accordance with the play script. Foster makes it look especially easy, but it's not. Here, timing is everything. As is every bit of stage business, blocking and positioning. That said, things unfold swimmingly because everyone grasps what they're sending up under Foster's intuitive tutelage.
The musical score for "The Drowsy Chaperone" features music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. Designed solely to parody those innocent, sugar-coated musicals of the 1920's, it is sassy, smart, refreshing and gumdrop-gooey. The musical numbers, 14 in all, include "Fancy Dress," "Cold Feets," "Show Off," "As We Stumble Along," "Wedding Bells," "Love Is Always Lovely" and "I Do, I Do In the Sky."
Every single one of them is nicely tucked into the witty, conniving silly plotline without overkill. And every one of them takes us through the musical's breezy sub plots and tomfoolery with range, dazzle, sparkle and showstopper aplenty.
With this production (and "Oliver!" and "The Will Rogers Follies" before that), Michael O' Flaherty celebrates his 27th season as Goodspeed's resident musical director. And rightly so! As "The Drowsy Chaperone's music and choral interpreter, he is in his element. He's talented. He's challenged. He's focused. He's re-vitalized. He's carefully attuned to the choices, the styles and the musicality laid out by the show's creators. His orchestral team of musicians is top dollar. And when teaching the songs, the harmonies and the intricate choral numbers to his choice, hand-picked team of actors and singers, there are no mistakes or wrong notes. He always gives 110 percent.
For this go-round, he does an incredible job of bringing the Lambert/Garrison score to life in all its stylized musical glory. Assisted by William J. Thomas, Pete Roe, Liz Baker Smith, Matthew Russo, Michael Schuster, Jim Kleiner and Sal Ranniello, O' Flaherty conducts "The Drowsy Chaperone" with inspired snap, virtuosity, vision, thought and imagination. Moreover, he always knows what buttons to push, how to get a belly laugh through song, how to amp things up musically, what important lyric or musical beat to emphasize, how to create a romantic or silly musical interlude and how to build and move a song to its dizzying crescendo. It's all marvelously conceived, colored and controlled.
The employment of Chris Bailey ("Chasing Rainbows," "The Music Man," "My Fair Lady") as choreographer for this glittery, slapstick, song and dance send up, is a coup for all on everyone's part. Deft and confident, he delves head first into the campy, giddy and colorful musical numbers like a 1920's impresario with a candied sugar fix. He dazzles. He excites. He takes chances. He camps it up ever so gaily. He is also very conscious of the musical's period setting, it's carefree mood swings, its flavorful sweetness, its charm, its lampooning, its playful, obvious stock characters and its nostalgic dance rhythms.
Ever inspiring, Bailey's choreographic style has plenty of oomph, sparkle and rainbow-tinged lightness. As "The Drowsy Chaperone" makes its mark, his choices are delightfully "spot on" and perfectly in sync with the musical's ripe and overly campy mechanics. It's a feat that elicits laughter, applause, melancholy and excitement in all the right places and one that Bailey sustains ever so beautifully throughout the two act musical. Highlights include "Fancy Dress," "Cold Feets," "Show Off," "Toledo Surprise" and "I Do, I Do In the Sky."
The performances are polished, sparky, rhythmic and fundamentally moving.
John Scherer, best remembered for his thrilling musical turns in "By Jeeves," "The Apple Tree" and "George M!" is back on stage as the Man in Chair, a fanatical lover of Broadway musicals and just about every other thing that cries musical. It's a role overflowing with dash, charm, nerdiness, personality and fantasy that Scherer owns and plays with obvious warmth, surprise and chutzpah that is always consistently funny. Stephanie Rothenberg, as Janet, the Broadway star who is willing to forsake footlights for marriage, is perfect, believable and stunning as the big-voiced, high-kicking showgirl. Her big number, aptly titled "Show Off" puts the actress center stage telling everyone she no longer needs attention while she does just the opposite in exhilarating, show-stopping fashion.
As Robert, the narcissistic, look-at-me-I'm-gorgeous wedding groom to Janet's perplexed bride, Clyde Alves is an appropriately dashing song and dance man who sings beautifully, dances beautifully and looks every inch like a 1920's movie matinee idol worth bedding for a night, a week, a month or a lifetime. The amazing Tim Falter is perfectly cast as Robert's best man George. A Donald O'Connor-like actor, dancer and singer, he plays his second banana role with amazing comic consistency and like Alves, enjoys being center stage and in the spotlight when the script commands him. The wonderfully comedic Jennifer Allen gets well-orchestrated laughs as the title character (i.,e, the Drowsy Chaperone) whose drowsiness is the result of drinking too many cocktails. As Adolpho, the self-proclaimed Latin lover who can't resist the wicked charms of the opposite sex, John Rapson camps it up in sheer melodramatic fashion, as well he should be.
There's always room for a ditsy blonde showgirl and Ruth Pferdehirt (Kitty) pulls off this frothy feat with amazing aplomb while Blakely Slaybaugh and Parker Slaybaugh offer well-crafted vaudevillian comic turns as two gangsters disguised as pastry chefs. If anyone is doing "Kiss Me Kate," the Slaybaugh's would be perfect as the scene-stealing gangsters who stop the show with their rousing rendition of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare." Just ring them with the details.
"The Drowsy Chaperone" is a fun, well-made entertainment that is tailor-made for The Goodspeed. It is full of heart, craft and giggles. It captures the playfulness of the characters and the material amazingly well. It is a breezy recreation of a time long gone by. It duly knocks you out of your seat from laughing so hard. And finally, it sends you out into the night (or daylight, if you choose a matinee) happily entertained, complete with a smile, a dance step or two and a wicked sense of wonderfully absorbed delirium.
"The Drowsy Chaperone" is being staged at The Goodspeed (6 Main St., East Haddam, CT), now through November 25.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 873-8668.