The Drowsy Chaperone

By Philip Pearce

SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO a show called Oklahoma! taught us that musicals should be relevant, logical and true to life. But that hasn’t stopped producers and audiences from looking back and affectionately spoofing those venerable pre-Rodgers and Hammerstein song and dance fantasies that were about as socially significant as a cheese soufflé.

Even as I write, Jewel Theatre is cheerfully sending up the sixties (minus the politics and protests) in a confection called Suds. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Boy Friend have offered playgoers clever pastiches of the kind of mindless melodic fluff that filled Broadway theaters back in Prohibition days.   

The Drowsy Chaperone, which has just opened a four weeks’ run at The Western Stage in Salinas, goes those shows one better. It doesn’t just imitate a 1928 fun and flappers musical. It serves it up garnished with wry and informed comments on the razzle-dazzle period quirks and clichés in what’s happening on stage while it’s up there happening. 

Our commentator and guide is a musical theater enthusiast known simply as The Man in Chair. He starts out as a voice talking in the dark about how an audience feels waiting in the dark for the stage lights to come up on a show. When they do come up, sure enough, there’s the chair and there he sits ready to chat us up and lead us through the ins and outs of the performance. A rumpled charmer with lots of theatrical smarts he’s identified in the program as David Norum. 

Beside his chair there’s an old-time record player and he tells us he’s going to feed it a digitally re-mastered LP of an old Broadway song and dance hit. And as the record spins, the stage will fill with the characters, props, costumes and frothy activity of a 1928 musical called, you guessed it, The Drowsy Chaperone.

Sure enough, as the record rolls, we meet the lithe and delectable Heather Osteraa as glamorous Janet Van de Graaff who’s abandoning Broadway stardom to marry eligible millionaire Robert Martin. She’s adamant that matrimony means an end to all of her theatrical “Showing Off,” an assertion she makes by singing and dancing her way through a song of that name in an extended glitzy production number in which she does nothing if not show off.       

As her fiancé Robert, Kyle Richlin wins top athletic honors of the evening by agreeing it’s bad luck for a groom to see his bride on their wedding day, so he spends the pre-wedding hours tap dancing, socializing and roller skating around while wearing a blindfold. 

Scott Free blusters and chews his cigar like Edward Arnold in the role of a Broadway producer named Feldzieg (get it?). He’s got a dumb blonde girlfriend named Kitty (Niki Moon, all energy and bafflement) who is perpetually waiting in the wings for her Ruby Keeler big moment in the spotlight. Feldzieg ignores or distracts her, obsessed with the shock of losing a million dollar show-biz investment like Janet to mere matrimony. He connives with a couple of comedy gangsters right out of Kiss Me Kate, played by Eric Wishnie and Noah Esquivel, to sabotage the Martin/Van de Graaff nuptials. 

They hire an allegedly irresistible Latin lover named Aldolpho, played with explosive erotic determination by the amazing Justin Gaudoin, to seduce the bride on her wedding morning. Trouble is, Janet’s boudoir is currently occupied by her drowsy chaperone dozing on the bed and the mentally challenged Aldolpho mistakes the chaperone for the bride. 

In a performance where the Western Stage cast, apart from David Norum, all portray 1920s actors who in turn have parts in The Drowsy Chaperone, Jen Brooks is all Theda Bara vampery in the title role. But the portrayer of Janet’s slinky chaperone turns out to be a legendary Broadway diva whose legend is beginning to sag. So her encounters with Janet are played with a nice subtext of politely bitchy efforts to upstage this upstart Broadway idol. Complicated enough for you? It takes the guiding hand of that man in the chair to make your way through this witty script.     

Everything happens at the classy estate of a moneyed socialite named Mrs. Tottendale. Mindy Pedlar is a ditzy delight as a vague lady rescued from blunders by an untiring butler named Underling, acted with a lot of Arthur Treacher panache by Ron Perez. Together, these two perform a couple of those vapid, purportedly comic routines supporting cast members are forced to go through out front by the footlights while stars and stagehands are busy behind the big drop curtain setting up for the next big upstage musical number.  

True to American musical tradition, almost everyone with a speaking part ends up married to someone else with a speaking part. The exceptions are those two comedy gangsters and Robert’s delightfully frantic best man George (Sarah Horn), who anticipates every detail except hiring a minister. To the rescue comes jodhpured Jaqui Hope’s swaggering Trix the Aviatrix. She agrees to act like a ship’s captain authorized to solemnize marriages if everyone will just climb aboard her plane and say “I Do, I Do in the Sky.”   

Manipulating the show through an LP record is a theatrically brilliant idea on the part of its creators Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison, Bob Martin and Don McKellar. It means Norum’s ingratiating character can halt things while he wants to make a point and start them up again when he’s finished making it. At least that’s what is supposed to happen. The recording apparatus does occasionally strike back, notably when everybody on stage suddenly starts to lurch to and fro repeating the same split second’s worth of dialogue over and over again because the LP needle is stuck in a faulty groove.   

Under some astute direction from Jon Patrick Selover and Joe Niesen, the cast manage these and other tricky moves with deft timing and impressive comic assurance.  

The fact that what happens on stage always depends on a phonograph record also produces, at the start of Act 2, the funniest and most elaborately staged joke I have ever seen played on an unsuspecting audience. But you’re going to have to buy a ticket and see this wonderful show to find out about that.   

It plays weekends on the Hartnell Mainstage through December 8th, with a “re ACTIONS” audience feed-back session with cast and creative crew after the November 25th matinee. 

 

Suds

By Philip Pearce

A NICE BIG HELPING of musical nostalgia bubbled into Santa Cruz last weekend. It’s called Suds and the opening night audience was weighted heavily in favor of baby boomers.  They weren’t looking for Lloyd Webber hydraulic scenic effects or Sondheim irony. Whatever our ages, we’d come to the Colligan to re-experience a ditsy world where Supremes-styled ladies do-wah-diddy in satin evening dresses and there’s fancy pelvis action from Elvis or a reasonable facsimile. Jewel Theatre Company obliged and served up a non-stop musical race down memory lane.  

“Suds” is subtitled “The Rocking Sixties Musical Soap Opera” because the story, such as it is, takes place in a “laundromat, in the early 1960s, One Fine Day, Anywhere U.S.A.” As soon as you arrive, Steve Gerlach’s massive set hits you between the eyes with coin operated washers, plastic laundry baskets and an upstage panel of side-loading dryers, all of it framed in gigantic full color ads for long-lost products like Oxydol, Rinso and 20 Mule Team Borax.  

The laundromat’s manager is a cute girl named Cindy, played with lots of bubbly energy and a touch of pathos by the beguiling Brittany Law. Cindy checks in for work full of hope and joy.  It’s her birthday, so (“Please Mr. Postman”) that’s surely going to mean a present and maybe even a proposal from her pen pal boyfriend. But her hopes are dashed (“The End of the World”) when she’s notified she’s got some overdue taxes, then receives a phone call to say her cat Fluffy has been run over by a sports car, then opens a letter from the boyfriend saying he’s dumping her in favor of someone with better penmanship.

To her rescue come two unlikely guardian angels. One is Dee Dee, acted by the bright and funny Lee Ann Payne, who also created the sixties choreography. Dee Dee is a dreamy-eyed, upbeat  angelic intern, chock full of bright ideas (“Lollypops and Roses”) for cheering up the suicidal Cindy. The other heavenly messenger is a seasoned seraph named Marge, played to the hilt by the miraculous and versatile Diana Torres Koss. Marge is a post-Burton Liz Taylor look-alike with a Rosalind Russell working girl attitude toward her heavenly career and a built-in contempt for trainee angels like soppy Dee Dee. 

The two of them bicker and battle but at the same time spend their nine-to-five working day mentoring, cajoling and plotting Cindy into replacing the ex pen pal with a more suitable Mister Right. Sprightly and resourceful, Nick Gallego acts, sings, dances and changes costume as half a dozen different guys who figure, one way or another, in Cindy’s emotional rehab. And that is all you need to know about the story.

Because the rest of the “book” is a jokey clothes line of small events on which the show’s creators, Melinda Gilb, Steve Gunderson and Bryan Scott, hang plot points, one by one, using songs from the sixties. There’s minimal dialogue. As soon as a fresh problem, situation or relationship pops up, Cindy and/or the Angels and/or their latest male visitor sing about it with the abrupt head jerks, hand calisthenics, hip swirls and cigarette-grinding dance footwork of 1960s pop idols.   

Suds is an inspired piece of period musical research. The cast of four work their way through 49 songs from the sixties, some memorable, some long forgotten, but each artfully slotted into a moment of conflict, discovery or mood shift as the paper thin plot runs its course.     

From a platform above the whirling dryers, musical director Ben Dorfan joins up with Matt Bohn, Zack Olsen, Tennessee O’Hanlon and Jeff Adams to provide slick sixties musical backing. Heart wrenching ballads like “I Don’t Wanna Be a Loser” and “Say a Little Prayer” are staged and sung with a restrained irony that’s a tribute to Shaun Carroll’s astute direction.   Authentically over-the-top material gets broader treatment. When Dee Dee finds her own Mr Right and sings about it “Today I Met the Boy I’m Going to Marry,” she does it with the cutesy and smirking microphone mannerisms of way too many wannabe Tammies and Gidgets.    Funniest of all is the guardian angels’ strenuous opening duet (“The) Loco-Motion”) sung while they watch Cindy struggle to self destruct using a scarf and a washing machine spin cycle.  Marge and Dee Dee give the number loads of appreciative pep in the belief that Cindy’s desperate gyrations are the slick moves of an exciting new disco dance.   

It’s not subtle, it’s sometimes predictable, but there are plenty of hilarious moments. The cast are top notch and the music’s gushy or wistful or explosive or all three. So spray your beehive, lace up your blue suede shoes and rock on down to the Tannery Arts Center on River Street before Suds closes on December 2nd. 

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo