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BWW Reviews: Belmont University Musical Theatre's THE DROWSY CHAPERONE

Smiling, in my view, has always been overrated - unless you have really pretty teeth, which I don't. As a result, I've always preferred to face the world with a look of bemused condescension. It sort of suits me, I suppose, and it helps maintain that arrogant, above-it-all facade most people expect from me. But, if that's true (and I assure you it is) what is it about The Drowsy Chaperone that makes me smile all the way through it?

Frankly, I think it's the show's enormous heart, that sweetly charming and enormously warm accessibility, that relays a beautifully composed love letter to musical theater. Everything that The Drowsy Chaperone says about musical theater and the people who revere it, who ensure that it continues to thrive into the 21st century, echoes the feelings that reside in my heart. So I can't stop smiling - until the end, that is, when "The Man in Chair" becomes one with the cast of his all-time favorite musical and finds himself transported to another world. Then I cry, unashamedly and genuinely, because that's my story, as well, and I suspect it's the story of most of my readers.

In fact, if you've ever sat in your living room, warding off the realities of the world outside your front door by listening to an original cast album from your all-time favorite musical, then The Drowsy Chaperone is definitely your story and if you haven't yet seen this beautifully crafted valentine to musical theater, you must get yourself to the Troutt Theatre for Belmont University Musical Theatre's production of the Lisa Lambert/Greg Morrison/Bob Martin/Don McKellar work. BUMT's production is the polished equal of any production of The Drowsy Chaperone you may have seen before and it is performed by an amazing group of student actors who will, without doubt, be the stars of Broadway's future.

While Nashville's Belmont University (known all over the world as a music mecca) might have once been known as the place where Miss America runners-up and never weres come to die - or to pursue a career in contemporary Christian music (at least that's what I, rather facetiously, have always told people who weren't from these parts) - it is quickly gaining notice worldwide as a breeding ground for musical performers in all genres, not the least of which are those pursuing careers in musical theater. And it's easy to see why budding musical stars from all over are flocking to Tennessee to learn their craft: Belmont provides them with the kind of nurturing guidance, amid the necessary and altogether exemplary technical trappings the university provides, that will serve them well for years to come.

Directed by David Shamburger, with musical direction by Jo Lynn Burks, The Drowsy Chaperone is an unmistakably top-flight production, performed with stylish glee by the cast of student actors who bring the "musical within a comedy" to such vibrantly mesmerizing life. Shamburger's focused direction and confident staging is seen throughout the production, which features the worky of six choreographers (Debbie Belue, Alyssa Maddox, Emily Tello, Emma Carpenter, Meghan Glogower and the director himself). That many choreographers could well lead to confusion (what's the old axiom about too many cooks spoiling the broth?) and a serious lack of onstage cohesion, but instead they come together on The Drowsy Chaperone to create a wonderfully danced musical comedy that flows seamlessly from one scene to the next.

And did I mention that Shamburger directs not one, but two casts in this sparkling musical comedy? The musical theatre program at Belmont is so filled with talent, it only makes sense to do it, but how the man maintains his sanity is beyond me. However, when you consider that the cast I saw delivered such a flawless show to their captivated audience, you have to assume that the other cast can only be their equals (which is phenomenal, let me assure you), but to consider they might even be better - well, that would be something of historic, but not unheard of, proportions.

Leading the show (at the performance reviewed)in the pivotal and essential role of "The Man in Chair" was Erik J. Christensen, possessing enough charm and wit to completely fill the Troutt Theatre to its rafters. For The Drowsy Chaperone to succeed, it's vital that the audience warm immediately to the character - if not, the show is lost and there's no way to get it back - and Christensen, from the very first moments that his disembodied voice fills the theater, places the audience very adroitly and very charmingly in his hand and there they remain, spellbound by his beautifully nuanced performancE. Christensen may well be younger than any "Man in Chair" you've seen heretofore, but he nonetheless commands the stage with confidence, spinning the story of his life and of the fictional musical that dominates it with a graceful ease. (And, obviously, he's listened to the original cast recording of the show a lot, sounding for all the world like Bob Martin in the Broadway production, their speech cadences almost perfectly matched.) But Christensen's portrayal isn't a copy; rather, it's original and fresh, making it all the more impressive.

As the glamorous stage star Janet Van de Graaf, Maggie McDowell displays a gorgeous voice, an enchanting onstage demeanor and a wealth of talent - not to mention perfect timing. Her rendition of "Show Off," arguably the show's best known number, is knock-your-socks-off good (Note to Sutton Foster: That knocking on your dressing room door might well be Maggie McDowell come a-calling for your job!) She is paired with Ben Laxton, as Robert Martin, who plays the song-and-dance man with a perfect blend of humor, charm and talent. Laxton delivers his songs with style and panache, he can tap dance with the best of them (including the ideally cast Tommy Wallace as "George, the best man," who very nearly threatens to steal the show out from under the leads), he roller skates with notable skill and he somehow conveys that matinee idol appeal that is needed to keep the ridiculously silly plot on course. Laxton's "Accident Waiting to Happen" is particularly noteworthy, giving him the chance to showcase his talents.

Devin Clevenger gives us a strong Victor Feldzieg, the producer of The Drowsy Chaperone, who is working feverishly to derail the impending wedding - and subsequent retirement - of his star (the aforementioned Janet Van de G.). Handsome and dashing, in a way that you'd expect the man in charge to be, Clevenger (who takes on the role for both casts) gives a perfect reading of the role. He is given strong support by Haley Henderson as his untalented, if very pretty, Gal Friday/girlfriend Kitty.

Casey Hebbel plays the title role, who's on-hand at the wedding to ensure that everything goes off as planned and to ensure that the groom doesn't see the bride on their wedding day. Her first comment upon arrival at the Tottendale Estate (where the nuptials will take place), however, is "Where's the bar?" which leads to a series of comic misadventures involving the chaperone and the Latin lothario (winningly played by Tucker Hammock) who pursues her in an attempt to upend the approaching marriage (the plot, though convoluted and farcical, really is easy to follow). Hebbel imbues the chaperone with an all-knowing world weariness and performs her songs, particularly "As We Stumble Along," with a pleasant blend of comedy and serious talent. Hammock's Adolpho is richly over-the-top and the actor possesses an unerring sense of timing and delivery, particularly in his big number "I Am Adolpho."

Among the other principals (all of whom skillfully sing their hearts out), Brittany Church and John Laing are terrific as Mrs. Tottendale and Underling and their scenes are well-played, while Samantha Ward and Ryan Brennan are well-cast as two gangsters posing as pastry chefs. Finally, Emma Carpenter makes a convincing Trix the aviatrix ("I Do, I Do In the Sky" is terrific).

With such strong direction and the exceptional performances onstage, what really helps to elevate this show far beyond what is expected from a "student production" is the foundation of support provided by the creative team charged with bringing it to the stage. Music director Jo Lynn Burks' orchestra sounds fantastic, playing the tuneful score with professional zeal and a sense of dotty playfulness. Rick Stetson's set is well-conceived and impressively realized - it's as good as any we've encountered in the numerous productions of The Drowsy Chaperone we've seen. Rhiannon Guillet's sumptous costume design is a perfect fit for the show and its multitude of characters. And Thom Roberts' exceptional lighting design accents the visual aesthetics of the production, ensuring that everything onstage looks its best.

- The Drowsy Chaperone. Music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. Book by Bob Martin and Dan McKellar. Directed by David Shamburger. Music direction by Lo Lynn Burks. Presented by the Belmont University Musical Theatre, Nashville Through April 3. For details, go to www.belmont.edu or call (615) 460-6408.


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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis