BWW Reviews: An Energetic DROWSY CHAPERONE at Theatre Harrisburg
Back in 1997, some friends, including Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert, and Greg Morrison, decided to throw a party for their friend Bob Martin, who was getting married. But it wasn't just any party - it was a spoof of a 1920's musical. Aware that he was the victim of a really good thing, Martin joined on the bandwagon, the resulting reworking was presented at the Toronto Fringe Festival ... and a real musical was born. That real musical, still a spoof of 1920's musicals, is THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, which opened on Broadway in 2006, with Sutton Foster playing the bride, Janet van de Graff, and Beth Leavel playing the eponymous Chaperone. Foster walked away with a Best Actress in a Musical Tony - the show took five Tonys and seven Drama Desks for 2006, no mean feat for a show and a sign that it's worth your time to know it.
THE DROWSY CHAPERONE is being performed now by Theatre Harrisburg at the Whitaker Center, directed capably by Steven L. Flom, and with outstanding costuming by Paul R. Foltz. The show is not just a spoof, though - it's also a play within another play, or so one might envision it. The show opens in the apartment of the theatre-loving but incredibly misanthropic Man In Chair (played by a suitably grumpy and becardiganEd Thomas Hostetter), who collects musical theatre soundtracks that take him out of the dreary realm of real life and transport him to a delightful world where song abounds and all endings are happy. Because of his glum mood, it's necessary, he explains to his guests - the audience - that he play his very favorite soundtrack, that of a play he's never seen but has studied extensively, The Drowsy Chaperone, that opened at the Morosco Theatre in 1928. Since the guests don't know the plot of the musical, Man In Chair offers to explain as the songs go along... and as he does, the show comes alive.
It comes alive with every possible 1920's stereotype - the ditzy rich blonde, Mrs. Tottendale, played with great energy by Theatre Harrisburg veteran Kristi Ondo, whose every whim is catered to by her dour butler, Underling (a wry, dry Kerry Mowery); oil magnate and groom Robert Martin (Russ Reed, who not only taps his way across stage but roller-skates blindfolded because it's safer than dancing); forgetful best man George (Anthony Barber); theatre impresario and ingénue Janet's producer, Feldzeig (Doug Macut); the completely clueless blonde would-be starlet Kitty (Mandi Krepps); a pair of gangsters cunningly disguised as pastry chefs (Rick Graybill and Brandon Fuller); Latin lover Aldolpho (a cheerfully smarmy Darren Riddle); the bride and Feldzieg's star, Janet van de Graff (an energetic and athletic Marisa Keener); the slightly drunken and unnamed chaperone delegated to keep Janet away from Robert until the wedding ceremony at Mrs. Tottendale's (Amy Rosenberry, in an outstanding performance); and Trix the Aviatrix, whose plane conveniently arrives at the Tottendale estate at a fortuitous moment (Rebecca Bremer, in an all-too-brief appearance). Director Flom makes a momentary cameo as Man In Chair's building superintendant, and the backup ensemble and Trix's crew are played by Joseph Chubb, Kate Roksandic, and Rebecca Mease.
The plot, like all 1920's plots, is thinner than a tissue: Robert and Janet want to marry. Janet wants to give up the stage and stardom... maybe. Feldzieg wants her to stay in the show. So does a mobster who's invested in Feldzieg's show, and who's sent two of his goons to stop the wedding. Janet and Robert have to stay away from each other, but Janet's chaperone would rather have another drink. Feldzieg wants Aldolpho to seduce Janet to break up the wedding, but Aldolpho finds the wrong woman. Kitty wants Janet's role in the show, and also wants to marry Feldzieg. Mrs. Tottendale wants to remember why she has all these people in her house. In the midst of the chaos, not one but four couples wind up marrying... even though Robert kisses an unknown French woman at the party and Janet calls their wedding off... and Trix the Aviatrix saves everyone even though her plane's broken down near the Tottendale swimming pool. Don't worry if this makes no sense - Man In Chair will help you through it, because he wants you to understand what a great show the original DROWSY CHAPERONE is.
It's a fine show indeed, and one that's loaded with inside jokes for theatre lovers - from the joke about the Morosco being torn down to build a hotel (DROWSY CHAPERONE opened at the Marquis Theatre, the Broadway theatre in the Marriott Marquis hotel... built on the site of the Morosco) to the completely meaningless fourth wall, to Man In Chair walking in and out of the musical's dance routines as he listens to the music on his stereo system.
There's no intermission, as Man In Chair believes they break the mood of a good show, but this is a shorter play than most musicals, so audiences should be fine. The set is beautifully constructed, and the costuming is notable. Mrs. Tottendale sings an ode to her own dress, the audience will sing an ode to the 1920's celebrity aviator wardrobe, and... well, form your own opinion about the monkeys and their wardrobe (and cymbals). Yes, monkeys, because this is a musical that does have everything. Even monkeys with cymbals. Again, Man In Chair will help you with the explanation.
Says Keener, "It's the most fun I've ever had, and it's everything - I sing, I dance, I get thrown in the air!"
Bremer adds, "Trix is great - she's bold, she's brassy, she saves the show."
And Hostetter, the Man In Chair himself, points out, "It's a real theatre lover's show - there are so many musical theatre references." Musical lovers will find themselves counting them.
The show is at Whitaker Center through February 17. Call 717-214-ARTS or visit www.theatreharrisburg.org.
Photo credit: Theatre Harrisburg