A Treatment for Unspecified Sadness, What I Call The Blues

I Hate Theatre.

And with those words, we’re introduced to the world of “The Drowsy Chaperone”, the show we saw this afternoon at The Ahmanson Theatre. The National Tour production is in Los Angeles for two weeks, and we finally got a chance to see the show (I’ve been kicking myself for the longest time, as it originated in Los Angeles back in 2005).

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.

Actingwise, the cast was excellent. Jonathan Crombie was an excellent “Man In Chair” — he played the role with the right humor, emotion, and playfulness required. Georgia Engel continued to play the wonderful ditzy Mrs. Tottendale (she plays such roles to perfection). Andrea Chamberlain was a remarkable Janet Van De Graaff, singing and dancing up a storm. Another strong singer and dancer was Nancy Opel as the Drowsy Chaperone. Other notables in the cast were Dale Hensley as Adolfo, Robert Dorfman as Underling — both of whom gave suitably comic perfmances. Other cast members were Mark Ledbetter as Robert Martin, Richard Vida as George, Cliff Bemis as Feldzig, Marla Mindelle as Kitty, Paul and Peter Riopelle as the two Gangsters, and Fran Jaye as Trix. Rounding out the ensemble were Kevin Crewell, Jen Taylor Farrell, Tiffany Haas, Chuck Rea, and Jennifer Swiderski.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity]

If you look at the reviews out there, they will agree that the acting is excellent. Some, however, will fault the show for being a bad musical. Those that do are missing the point. Yes, the internal musical “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a bad musical — as were most musicals of the 1920s. They were excuses for escapism, they were excuses to tie together existing vaudeville acts and novelty pieces. But they had great music to go with those throway characters — and this musical is a celebration of how musicals used to be a way to escape. Today we are faced with realism and heavy stories, from In The Heights to Rent to even Avenue Q. I think many reviewers have lost the perspective of just enjoying the show, and as you watch Man in Chair, you can see how much the world of the musical is his escape, his way of coping with the world. As a musical lover myself, I know the feeling well.

There are somethings you can’t escape. In this musical, it was sound problems. Early on, the sound was a bit tinny. Even worse, at the final number, Trix’s mic failed. Luckily she could belt to the back of the house, and the sound man quickly rebalanced other mics so that all performers were on an even keel, and still could be heard. The Ahmanson’s good accoustics helped here, but I’m sure there was panic in the tech booth. This was the first matinee of a show that just moved in, so I’m sure they will work it out. As for other technical aspects: the set was interesting, being Man In Chair’s apartment. I was impressed at the Murphy Bed that kept changing bedclothes (while folded up), and even got loaded with actors and actresses before being lowered. There were also numerous seemless costume changes on stage, executed flawlessly. There were a few lighting things that were innovated (such as using a table lamp as a follow spot), but otherwise it was typical 1920 lighting.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” features music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, with book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar. The production was directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Scenic design was by David Gallo. Costume design was by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design was by Ken Billington and Brian Monahan. Sound design was by Acme Sound Partners. Hair was by Josh Marquette, with Makeup by Justen M. Brosnan.

The musical quality of the production was excellent. Orchestrations were by Larry Blank, with dance and incidental music arrangements by Glen Kelly. Music supervision and vocal arrangements were by Phil Reno. Music direction was by Robert Billig, assisted by Tom Whiddon.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre until July 20, 2008.

Next up on our theatre calendar is a concert: “Big Bad Voodoo Daddy” at the Hollywood Bowl ((Wed 7/16 @ 8pm). Next Saturday evening theatre resumes with “Parade” at Neighborhood Playhouse, Palos Verdes (Sat 7/19 @ 8pm), “Looped” at Pasadena Playhouse (Sat 7/26 @ 8pm), “Singing in the Rain” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (Sat 8/2 @ 2pm), and “Assassins” at West Coast Ensemble (Sun 8/10 @ 2pm).