"The Drowsy Chaperone" Theatre By The Sea Matunuck, RI August 19, 2011
by Randy Roberts
The Tony Award-winning musical comedy "The Drowsy Chaperone" is now playing at Theatre By The Sea in Matunuck, RI through September 4. On opening night, they breezed through the raucous farce that's a send-up of stage musicals of the 1920s and features some great, Jazz Era-inspired music and dancing.
So who, exactly, is the 'drowsy chaperone'? Well, it's certainly not the lady pictured above, big-time stage star Janet Van De Graaff (Erin West) although she does appear to be recuperating or something. No, she's explaining to the press, played by Nathan Chang, Nicole Calabrese, Amanda Kouri and Mike Baskowski, why she's giving up the stage to get married to endearingly self-absored stage star Robert Martin (charmingly played by Sean Montgomery). So they're not only not the name in the title, but neither are they truly the stars of the show. Who is the star -- will you believe it -- the guy on the far right wearing the orange cardigan.
Yes, here is your star. "Who, this schlub?" you ask. "And he sings and dances?" Actually, no, he doesn't. In what must be a Broadway first, this 2006 hit has a lead character who doesn't sing, doesn't dance, doesn't fall in love, doesn't save the day or dream an impossible dream. He sits in his chair. In fact, he's known only as "Man In Chair" and played by the very funny Lennie Watts.
The show opens with him parked in his ratty easy chair in his dreary apartment. The Man puts on a record album of his favorite old musical, "The Drowsy Chaperone," and as he listens, the show comes to life around him. Although it sounds like the gimmick might wear off quickly, instead, the show manages to keep it interesting as everday occurances like the phone ringing, people coming to the door, etc. manage to interfere with the show-within-a-show.
Alright, so who is the Chaperone? And if the show is that much fun, why is he or she 'drowsy?'
Lennie Watts as Man In Chair (Mark Turek photo)
(Mark Turek photo)
Good questions. See the picture on the left. No, wait, isn't that the lady from above? Yes, you're right, Ms. West, who after getting off her sickbed explains she no longer wants to "Show Off" as she sings in an over-the-top production number in which she turns cartwheels, plays musical glasses, performs ventriloquism, twirls a baton, charms a snake and leads the company through a Charleston -- just to show she doesn't want the attention!
And he's not the chaperone, either, that's her hubby-to-be who we mentioned before, Mr. Montgomery, who performs a dazzling tap number ("Cold Feets") along with his Best Man, the perpetually rattled George (Kevin Loreque, who is outstanding). It was another highlight of the production very early in the show.
How about the two knuckleheads at the right of the photo (Derek Johnson and James Wells), but no, they're not chaperones and not even slightly drowsy, though a little dingy. Plus, they're not the inept-looking pastry chefs they appear but are, in fact, inept hit men.
Soooooo, the real Drowsy Chaperone is ....
THIS WOMAN! The lady in red is a fading stage star played by Happy McPartlin. She's been assigned to keep tabs on the bride leading up to her ceremony, but she's the one who needs someone looking out for her. See, she's not so much "drowsy" as she is "drunk." Pickled since she started boozing it up in Act I and pretty well sauced when she meets up with loathsome lothario Aldolpho (Tony Castellanos), who seduces her by singing a tribute song to himself, called (what else?) "I Am Aldolpho." Castellanos is a scream. Now, looking at this picture, I should remind you that stage makeup looks heavy close-up or in a photo like this. But, believe me, Aldolpho looks almost this ridiculous from the balcony and punctuates his dialogue and self-aggrandizement with his cape and cane. In a show full of scene-stealers, Castellanos is the number one crook.
And what's going on in the rest of the photo that I had to crop off? And why does everyone seem to be hooking up at this wedding? You'll have to see it to find out.
(Mark Turek photo)
(Mark Turek photo)
They're all broadly-played stock characters and the paper-thin plot is only enough to neatly tie together the songs, also typical of the era's musicals, star vehicles for each performer to do his or her specialty. And as the comedy team involved (The Marx Brothers and other vaudeville greats would be in shows like this), the two gangsters have a real show-stopper with "Toledo Surprise." It starts out as a verbal warning to a producer named Feldzieg (Ron Sarro) whose show will go under if his leading lady retires (and whatever a Toledo Surpise is, you don't want it), and turns into another intricately-choreographed, jazzy set piece.
Young actors Wells and Johnson as the gangsters add plenty of comedic punch to the proceedings, as does Arielle Kook as Kitty, also pictured at left, who plays the ditzy blonde role to perfection, teamed up with Feldzieg in a sort of Burns and Allen pair.
There's a very funny twist to open Act II and the show literally comes to a stop near the end -- but I don't want to reveal any of the inventive machinations of the show, that's the fun of "The Drowsy Chaperone."
It's recommended for an enjoyable, fast-paced night of theatre. Ocean State Theatre Company has produced four winning musicals this summer at Theatre By The Sea, starting with the very fun "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," the epic "Man of La Mancha," and their recent blockbuster success, "Hairspray."
"Chaperone" is not up to the level of "Hairspray," which was loved by everyone I spoke to at this opening. Also less satisfying to me than "Spelling Bee" which I truly connected with. The essence of "The Drowsy Chaperone" is that it's not a real performance, it's imagined by the Man In Chair, and the whole thing is campy even beyond "Hairspray," it's a total send-up of the genre and the success of the show hinges on The Man's appeal and ability to carry the verite.
So you don't get involved with the characters too much. Although the Scenic Designer Kimberly B. Powers does her best to give some pizzazz to The Man's tacky apartment with some moving pieces to create other rooms and some inventive uses of kitchen cabinets and archways, it's not a real eye-pleasing space to spend a few hours of your life. These, of course, are inherent in this material. The OSTC does a great job of bringing to life both The Man In Chair as real-life and the show-within-a-show as delightful fantasy. I greatly enjoyed the Goodspeed's "My One And Only" earlier this year that was set in the same era but without the wrap-around story and so was able to have more fun with the period staging and effects and allowed me to at least superficially invest in the lead characters.
"The Drowsy Chaperone" is playing now through September 4. Theatre By The Sea is at Cards Pond Road in Matunck, Rhode Island, a short drive from the Connecticut line on Route 1. Call for reservations at (401) 782-8587 or visit them online.
There will be a bonus production at Theatre By The Sea this season, a non-musical, the Rhode Island premiere of "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps," a tour-de-force for four actors playing over 100 roles to recreate the classic film in hilarious earnestness.
Also of great interest was Producing Artistic Director Amiee Turner's announcement before the show of selections for the theatre's 2012 season including the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, "The Sound of Music," a musical version of the Dolly Parton film, "Nine To Five," "How To Succeed In Business (Without Really Trying)" and the singing group story "Forever Plaid."