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BWW Reviews: 3D Theatricals Charms With THE DROWSY CHAPERONE

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It's no surprise that in such harsh economic times, theatrical entertainment becomes one of its unfortunate casualties. This has been the case recently for the long-standing Fullerton Civic Light Opera, which back in January had to shutter its operations due to sluggish ticket sales and low returns for theater rentals, prematurely putting a stop to its 40th Season. Swooping in to their rescue, 3D Theatricals has agreed to produce the remainder of the FCLO's season, a move that also secures the new O.C.-based regional theater company with a new venue, something the roughly two year old company has been searching for since it lost its original home venue, The OC Pavilion in Santa Ana late last year.

As its first production in their new home at the historic Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton, 3D Theatricals opens with THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, that wonderful, effervescent 2006 Broadway musical concoction dreamed up by book writers Bob Martin and Don McKellar and composer-lyricists Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. A Tony Winner for Best Book and Best Score, this insanely funny musical comedy started its life in 1997 as a spoof of old classic musicals written by McKellar, Lambert, Morrison and several of their friends for the impending real-life nuptials of Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaff. The show itself would later be expanded for full stagings in Toronto and New York. Eventually, a full-blown out-of-town pre-Broadway tryout was commissioned for Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre in 2005 before making its Broadway debut in May 2006.

A charmer of a musical, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE is a reverent, if wildly sarcastic homage to the American Jazz-Age musical, those frothy, lighthearted screwball comedies that captivated so many fans with its fun and frivolity. In choosing this as their first production at the Plummer, 3D Theatricals manages to give FCLO's long-time subscribers with an accessible musical comedy that is both enjoyable and downright entertaining. THE DROWSY CHAPERONE seems rightly dedicated to the avid, slightly obsessive musical theater lover, and here, that fanaticism is represented by the show's narrator and de facto color commentator, The Man in Chair.

The show finds us in the unassuming apartment of The Man in Chair. Timid and living a bit like a hermit, the day finds him feeling a bit down and suffering from a "non-specific sadness." To cure his state of blue, he explains that an effective instant remedy was to put on a record—yes, kids, a record—of the original cast album of the silly 1928 Gable and Stein musical comedy THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. In reality, this rare recording is a fictional one, a show that historically does not exist, but yet, in the span of the show's running time manages to feel like it really did exist in the pantheons of theatrical legend.

Through the magic of theater, The Man in Chair's apartment soon transforms, springing forth the show's characters—and the supposedly infamous actors that inhabit them—to life, acting out the events in the fictional THE DROWSY CHAPERONE. The show-within-a-show, now being narrated with snarky, hilarious asides by The Man in Chair, concerns the wedding of stage superstar Janet Van De Graaff (Gail Bennett) to oil magnate Robert Martin (Joseph Sark), much to the disappointment of stage producer Mr. Feldzieg (James W. Gruessing Jr.). You see, Janet has agreed to give up her big, attention-hogging career on the stage for love and a life with Mr. Martin, leaving Mr. Feldzieg without a guaranteed, money-making headliner. Making matters more complicated are a couple of bumbling, pun-loving gangsters (Justin Jones and Juan Guillen), disguised as, naturally, pastry chefs (!) there under the orders of a chief investor to ensure that Feldzieg do all he can to stop the wedding, thereby continuing Janet's role in Feldzieg's Follies.

Hoping to help him stop the wedding, Feldzieg recruits Latin lothario Adolpho (Carlos Martin) to seduce Janet away from Robert. But Janet has her own wedding–day jitters to contend with already. It doesn't help much that Janet's drowsy—as in drunk—chaperone (Tracy Lore) is too busy looking for the bar to tend to her duties. Inserted within the story are various other characters that provide nothing more than a series of mistaken mishaps, odd dance breaks, and laughable vaudevillian sequences synonymous with the screwball comedy musicals of the era, including a proper but sarcastic English underling (Danny Michaels), a spotlight-hungry chorus girl (Nicole Manly), Robert's manic best man (Robert Ramirez), an African-American show-pilot (Amber J. Snead), and an easily-dumbfounded wealthy old lady (TV star Sally Struthers).

As we watch the madcap antics of the show with an extensive, rather gossipy running commentary provided by the fawning Man In Chair, we get slight hints about our narrator's life as the story unfolds, providing us with a few glimpses into why he's sad about his own life and why he turns to musical theater for a bit of a fantasy escape. We certainly get that fantasy aspect here, where the set believably morphs from an average apartment to an outdoor cabana with lightning speed. Its hard not to smile with this musical, as we are pummeled into glorious submission with the show's infectious melodies and harmless classic comedy bits that seem very timeless, despite its obvious fictitiousness.

Besides its fun musical ditties and wickedly funny dialogue, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE is chock-full of self-referential, dishy musical theater inside tidbits that make the show quite endearing as a whole. It's quite unfortunate, though, during the show's opening night performance, that it was marred by a few, unexpected technical gaffes that felt like intrusive ghosts haunting an old auditorium. Right from the start, beginning with The Man In Chair's opening preface to the show, microphone and other audio-related problems plagued the otherwise wonderful show. The audio problems came often, and were most troubling during numbers where the band is playing at full volume, drowning out the cast solos and some of the Man in Chair's hilarious banter to barely a whisper. Quieter moments sounded better, as well as when certain cast members sang the heck out of their awesome, belty solos. Luckily, sitting close to the stage (and being quite familiar with the music and libretto) afforded me a slightly better vantage point, but I can't speak for the patrons sitting multiple rows behind me, who I assume had a harder time hearing the action on stage. Here's hoping subsequent performances have already had these issues fixed.

Audio problems aside, 3D Theatrical's attempt at remounting this production is definitely an admirable one, mirroring many of the same spectacular elements from larger previous productions before it. Under director TJ Dawson (one of the three "D's" in 3D Theatricals), the production glides effortlessly from one hilarious scenario to another, letting the actors and the script shine on their own without additional bells and whistles. Kami Seymour's top notch choreography accentuates the fabulous costumes from Sharell Martin and dazzling sets by J. Branson.

And the ensemble is simply marvelous, without a single weak link in the bunch. Among the standouts, Bennet's show-off Janet is just stunning both in voice and movement, a performance that would make its originator Sutton Foster proud. As The Man In Chair, Betts effectively channels the pathos and excitement of a real life musical theater fan, full of unbridled enthusiasm and heartbreaking sadness, yet completely untainted by cynicism. Struthers' brief moments on stage are supremely beguiling, and her effortless acting as a ditzy dowager with an excellent spit-take is such a welcome presence. As her comic foil, Michaels matches Struthers on every spit-take with a sharp wit and dance moves that rival the young'ins among the cast. As the Gin-loving title character, Lore gets to pepper her role with the soul of every Broadway dame and diva that came before her, and does so with great gusto. She gamely conjures up everyone from Patti LuPone to Liza Minnelli to Debbie Reynolds to Barbra Streisand, all without an ounce of timidness or an ounce spilled from her martini glass. Her head-scratching inspirational anthem "As We Stumble Along" is every showqueen's dream. And perhaps the show's biggest scene stealer is the very funny Martin as the super-accented Adolpho, who takes over-the-top over-acting to new heights of kitsch and hilarity.

Overall, 3D Theatrical's first show at the Plummer Auditorium, despite the venue's audio setbacks, still manages to be a fun, hilarious romp that transcends one's age and background—the perfect replacement for FCLO's truncated season plagued by the economic downturn. As escapist art, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, itself, is simply an enjoyable, pleasing and charming musical that has nothing to offend or turn-off people from it, a rarity in today's theatrical offerings. As a love letter to people who love musical theater, the show makes the case that all fans of the genre can somehow find the strength to get through life's depressing times, all by simply putting on a cast album... or, in this case, seeing a fabulously funny show.

Photos of 3D Theatricals Presentation of THE DROWSY CHAPERONE by Alysa Brennan.
Top: Michael Betts as Man In Chair. Middle: Tracy Lore as the Drowsy Chaperone.
Bottom: Sally Struthers as Mrs. Tottendale.

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Performances of 3D Theatricals' THE DROWSY CHAPERONE continue at the Plummer Auditorium in Fullerton through February 27, 2011 and are scheduled Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm. 

The Plummer Auditorium is located at 201 East Champan Avenue in the city of Fullerton.

For tickets or more information, call 714-589-2770 or visit www.3DTshows.com.


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