Near the end of The Drowsy Chaperone, the Man in Chair (who has been the guide throughout the show) notes that, while The Drowsy Chaperone isn’t a perfect show, it does what a musical is supposed to do: it takes you to another world, it gives you a little tune to carry in your head for when you’re feeling blue. Last night, during the CSUN Theatre Arts Department‘s production of Drowsy, this line really hit me. Drowsy Chaperone is really the perfect palate cleanser between the heavy message of last week’s Carrie: The Musical and tonight’s production of Doubt at REP East (FB). Drowsy Chaperone is a musical I love — it is one of the funniest musicals around (especially if you are a regular theatregoer): it makes fun of musical conventions and audiences, and pretty much everything. It’s light, it’s fluffy, and yes — it chases your blues away.
Last night’s show, which was the first of three performances of CSUN students in the Great Hall at VPAC was astounding in many ways. First, it is using the Great Hall as it really should be used — as a venue for live theatre and musicals. The Great Hall is normally concert performances ala the Broad and similar venues, but it works so well for theatre. There had once been talk about doing some CTG programming there but that never happens. Having occasional two weekend shows there would be remarkable. Even better than that, the Great Hall was being used — for the first time — for a
student production musical [ETA: Corrected: The music department put on “Carmen”, and there have been instrumental ensemble productions]. If you haven’t discovered CSUN Theatre Arts, you’re missing something. We’ve seen a number of CSUN shows before — Hair back in 2006, Bat Boy in late 2014 — and this department just shines with its talent and quality. Last night was no exception: this production was (at the talent and performance level) equal to — if not better than — the production we saw back in 2008 at the Ahmanson. I’ve heard rumors that CSUN will be doing Urinetown in the fall — yet another production I love. Expect to see that on my schedule.
For those unfamiliar with The Drowsy Chaperone, here’s how I summarized it back in 2008 [I’m all for adaptive reuse]: The Drowsy Chaperone is hard show to describe, although the subtitle actually describes it best: “A Musical Within A Comedy”. As with “Curtains”, Drowsy Chaperone is a love letter to musical theatre of yesteryear, told through the eyes of a character named, uhh, “Man In Chair”. To escape from his unspecific sadness, he plays his favorite musical record: The 1928 Gable-Stine Musical “The Drowsy Chaperone”, which comes to life in his living room. That musical is a silly farce about an actress leaving the stage to marry her true love, the producer who doesn’t want her to leave, and the various hijinks that lead to the wedding. After all, this is a 1920’s musical: you really expect a coherent plot? The story exists solely to connect the songs. Anyway, the characters in this musical are the ditsy Mrs. Tottendale (host of the wedding), her butler Underling, the groom Robert Martin, his best man George, the producer Feldzieg and his chorine Kitty, two gangsters, the handsome leading man Adolfo, the bride Janet Van De Graaff, her chaperone, and Trix, the Aviatrix.
The backstory behind this musical is equally interesting. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it, edited a little: The Drowsy Chaperone started in 1997, when Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison and several friends created a spoof of old musicals for the stag party of Bob Martin (FB) and Janet van de Graaf (FB). In its first incarnation, there was no Man in Chair, the musical styles ranged from the 1920s to the 1940s, and the jokes were more risqué. It was later reshaped for the Toronto Fringe Festival, when the Man in Chair was added. Following the Fringe staging, there was an expanded production at Toronto’s 160-seat, independent Theatre Passe Muraille in 1999, followed by a full-scale version at Toronto’s 1000-seat Winter Garden Theatre. This caught the eye of more producers, including the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, which led to a 2005 engagement at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, followed by a Broadway opening in 2006.
This show is much more than the story. It is a love letter to musical theatre. From it’s opening line “I hate theatre” — it just telegraphs this message. All the asides by the Man in Chair are commentaries on society, on theatre conventions, on the silliness of the shows from the 1920s through 1940s, on the over-seriousness of the shows today. Theatre audiences are equally skewered by the Man in Chair, as are stereotypes. This is one of the funniest shows — I had forgotten how hilarious it was (and I normally don’t laugh at shows). I should note, if you didn’t know it before, that the show has music and lyrics by the aforementioned Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and book by Bob Martin (FB) and Don McKellar.
This CSUN student production featured professional quality performances. The faculty leadership team — Kari Hayter (FB) (direction and choreography), David Aks (FB) (musical direction), and Christopher M. Albrecht (FB) (associate choreographer) did a great job of shaping these students into a professional team. You couldn’t see the hand of their leadership, but it was evident in the overall quality and movement and joy the actors displayed.
In the lead position was Daniel Bellusci (FB) as the Man in Chair. We should have seen Bellusci before — he’s a product of Nobel Middle School (where our daughter went in the early days of their theatre program) and he was music director for two shows there. Alas, we missed the shows he was in. No big matter. He was perfect last night — infectuous, joyful, and completely in love with what he was doing on stage. I always believe that actors who are comfortable with their roles and who are enjoying their characters telegraph that enjoyment to the audience, and this was no exception. Keep your eye on this young man — both in the show and in his career.
In the lead positions for the show-in-show were Steven Brogan/FB as Robert Martin and Skye Privat (FB) as Janet Van De Graff. Brogan had the charm and voice to handle his numbers with ease, and he was a delight with his tap dancing in “Cold Feet”. Privat was remarkable as Van De Graff, and was particularly enjoyable in her signature number, “Show Off”. This young lady could belt and dance and act, all the while telegraphing the fun she was having onstage.
There are loads of supporting positions, so let’s do these by couples. First, there is the titlular character, the Drowsy Chaperone, played by Brooke Van Grinsven (FB). I’ve seen Van Grinsven recently in Bard Fiction, and she was even better here. Strong singing, strong movement, strong comedy — and (modulo some microphone problems) belted her way wonderfully through “As We Stumble Along”. The other half of her pair (at least by the time the show ends) is the buffoonish Aldolpho, played by Nick Bruno/FB. Bruno has great comic chops and timing, and handled his number, “I Am Adolpho” with comic aplomb. Our next couple is Mrs. Tottendale and Underling. Mrs. Tottendale, played by Valerie Gould/FB, captured the older, ditsy nature of the character well. She was particularly funny in her spit-take scenes with Underling, , and delightful in the opening number “Fancy Dress” as well as “Love is Always Lovely in the End”. Her foil, Underling (played by Lance Amann/FB), captured the all-knowing puts-up-with-everything servant well, and was strong in his shared numbers with Gould.
This brings us to the gangster side of the equation. As the producer, Mr. Feldzieg, Shad Willingham (FB) had the authority and worry down well, and had good comic timing with his leading ladies and the gangster duo. I had guessed he was older than the other students — I was proven right when the linking for the review showed that he is one of the instructors. Playing off Feldzeig was Amanda Godepski (FB) as Kitty. Godepski was a powerhouse comic and singer in a small package. Lastly, playing the Tall Brothers playing the gangsters impersonating pastry chefs were John Bernos (FB) and Matthew Kesner/FB. These two young men demonstrated good comic timing. All four were strong in their shared number “Toledo Surprise”.
Rounding out the cast, in smaller roles, were Jared Tkocz/FB as George, Khylan Jones (FB) as Trix, and Harrison Seeley/FB as the Super. Tkocz was strong in his number with Brogan, “Cold Feet”, and Jones had a remarkable voice in her main number, “I Do, I Do in the Sky”. The ensemble behind all the numbers consisted of: Evelyn Onyango/FB, Rachael Johnson/FB, Brittany Williams/FB, Jessamyn Arnstein (FB), Alissa Finn/FB, Emily Blanco (FB), Logan Allison/FB, Hyungwoo Jang/FB, Felix Valle/FB, Alexander Cody Phaphol (FB), Robert Collins/FB, and Harrison Seeley/FB.
Music was provided by the Drowsy Chaperone Orchestra, under the direction of David Aks (FB). The orchestra consisted of Justin Yun/FB, Jeff Brown/FB, James Walker/FB, Alec Olson/FB on Reeds; Garek Najita/FB, Michael Guttierez/FB, and Nolan Markey/FB on Trumpet, Ryan Ruder/FB on Trombone, Peter Shannon on Piano, Lindsay Aldana/FB on Synthesizer, Mary Duffy/FB on Bass, Eli McDonald/FB on Drums, and Lindsay Eastham/FB on Percussion.
Turning to the technical side. The sound design was by Michael Zeigler was generally clear and crisp, however a few actors had microphone problems, and I’m not sure the spit take did the equipment any good. The lighting design by Nick McCord created the mood without intruding. The scenic design of François-Pierre Couture was nothing like the 2008 Ahmanson design with people coming out of refrigerators and beds opening up. The apartment set was realistic and worked; the remainder of the set was mostly scaffolding and stairs, combined with some very effective projections. Costumes were by Elizabeth A. Cox and were extremely effective. Geoffrey Stirling/FB was the stage manager.
The Drowsy Chaperone at CSUN has two more performances: tonight at 7:30 pm, and tomorrow at 2:00 pm. Tickets should be available at the on-site box office, as well as by calling 818/677-2488. Go see it. You’ll be astounded.
Our theatre stars of tomorrow get their starts in college productions such as The Drowsy Chaperone. The subsequently hone their skills working alongside AEA actors in Los Angeles’ wonderful 99 seat and under theatre scene. Their ability to do so is seriously threatened by the recent AEA proposal that would require most 99 seat and under theatres to pay minimum wage (along with the concurrent employer taxes and pension benefits and union fees) to AEA actors for fixed minimum rehearsal times and performance times. This would force many theaters to go non-union (because they are already losing money as is), and would derive new actors from the learning experience. KEEP LOS ANGELES INTIMATE THEATRES ALIVE AND VIBRANT. If you are an AEA actor, vote “No” on the proposal when you see it. If you are activist, join the march on AEA Western HQ on Monday, 3/23. Find out more information at http://www.ilove99.org/.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Upcoming Shows: Tonight brings “Doubt” at REP East (FB). March concludes with “Newsies” at the Pantages (FB) on March 28, followed by Pesach and the Renaissance Faire on April 11. The following weekend will see us back at a music store listening to a performance: this time, it is Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes Guitar Shop (FB). After that we’re in Vegas for a week — I haven’t yet determined the shows yet, but Menopause the Musical looks quite likely. We may also work in “After the Revolution” at the Chance Theatre (FB). May begins with “Loopholes: The Musical” at the Hudson Main Stage (FB) on May 2. This is followed by “Words By Ira Gershwin – A Musical Play” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on May 9 (and quite likely a visit to Alice – The Musical at Nobel Middle School). The weekend of May 16 brings “Beer for Breakfast” at REP East (FB). The weekend of May 23 brings Confirmation services at TAS, a visit to the Hollywood Bowl, and also has a hold for “Love Again“, a new musical by Doug Haverty and Adryan Russ, at the Lonny Chapman Group Rep (FB). The last weekend of May currently has a hold for “Fancy Nancy” at the Chance Theatre (FB) and “Waterfall“, the new Maltby/Shire musical at the Pasadena Playhouse (FB). June is equally crazy, as we’ve got the Hollywood Fringe Festival amongst other things (including our annual drum corps show). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.