From the still-dark stage, we hear a squeaky, dramatic, and overly protracted sigh, followed by “I hate theatre.” But when the lights finally come up on a rather mousy, nervous-looking man in bow tie and sweater, we soon learn this Man in Chair does love, no adores, no totally idolizes musicals with his full, twittering soul. He especially likes those musicals of yesteryear found today only among his collection of rare LPs. From a frumpy chair in his dumpy, one room apartment, we are about to hear — and most improbably actually to see — his favorite musical of all, The Drowsy Chaperone.
As he plays the overture (which he calls a “poopoo platter of tunes”), his whole body is now in full, twitching frenzy in anticipation of the first sung number. We settle back to enjoy the 1998 winner of five Tonys by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics) and by Bob Martin and Don McKellar (book) also entitled The Drowsy Chaperone. Oregon Cabaret Theatre stages this play within a play (better yet, a musical within a play) that parodies in dozens of ways the musicals of the 1920s. With the likes of an absent-minded dowager, a starlet in love with a cute commoner, comic gangsters, a ditzy chlorine, a martini-toting lush, a foreign Romeo, and many more tongue-in-cheek inserts — this Chaperone is sure to do what the Man in Chair promises a musical is supposed to do: “Take you into another world.” Oh, it will also for certain produce at least one and probably a stage full of happy endings, guaranteed.
As soon as he puts the vinyl platter on his tiny record player (but only after meticulously cleaning for what seems an eternity the treasured LP), that promised other world comes to life as the first song’s notes begin a parade of quirky characters bursting into his apartment through the refrigerator, closets, and even his walled-up Murphy bed. As each track plays, the story begins to unfold of a wedding between Vaudeville star Janet Van De Graf and a recently met nobody, Robert Martin. That is, the story proceeds except when the Man in Chair — bubbling over in his excited opinions — can hold back no longer and jumps in to give commentary. The increasingly frenetic comedy introduces a money-strapped producer who does not want to lose his star to wedlock, two gangsters-turned-pastry chefs who are hounding same producer for owed money, and his air-head but sweet girlfriend who is ready to be the new star.
The Man in the Chair’s incessant interjections, unwanted phone calls, a power outage, and even the urgent need for him to go pee all mean the music and the accompanying action come frequently to frozen stops, only to be topped by a stuck record where action on the apartment stage goes into triple-time replays.
While the forgotten musical’s plots could hardly be more lame and predictable, The Drowsy Chaperone that we watch is a stage full of joy and delight — not without much credit first going to the Man in Chair himself, John Stadelman.
What makes the show so fun for us is a cast of zany but talented characters who can sing and dance up a storm and who, to a person, brings humor and heart to their roles. Track after track of the Man’s LP produces a number sure to be a hit with us, the audience. We hear Jake Delaney as Robert, the husband-to-be, sing in a jazzy, ragtime-rich voice “Cold Feet,” soon joined by his best man, George (Edgar Lopez) as the two tap their heels and toes slow, fast, and then super fast all around the room.
Not to be outdone, Layli Kayhani as the bride Janet brings her starlet voice and diva qualities to the spotlight. In a virtual Vaudeville tour of tricks, she spins plates on sticks, plays tunes on partly filled glasses, and escapes a locked safe (in this case, the Man’s refrigerator) Houdini-style — all the while belting beautiful notes clear and gorgeous in “Show Off.”
Janet’s pre-nuptial chaperone — aptly named “Drowsy” in the program due to her own constant companion being anything containing vodka — is the wonderfully warbling Gretchen Rumbaugh. Her voice slides up and down the musical scales in “As We Stumble Along,” sounding as if overly oiled by the best of alcoholic lubricants. Much of the great fun of Ms. Rumbaugh’s Drowsy Chaperone comes from a pair of eyes whose large, round size allows them to have their own monologues with the audience as she sings through a mouth that hilariously shows off several dozen bizarre ways of shaping its lips. The result is Ms. Rumbaugh being in many ways the star of the evening.
But there are plenty more characters bringing their own moments of frivolity. Galloway Stevens is a Latin lover whose voice also rises up to heights with much ado as he tangos with full toreador bravado while singing a ridiculously silly (in all the right ways) “I Am Adolpho.” Scott Ford is the pin-striped, gravely voiced boss-man Victor Feldzieg who eventually turns soft enough to fall in love with the his gal Kitty (Stephanie Jones), who proves to be much smarter than her squeaky voice and vacant looks might indicate. A matronly voiced Mrs. Tottendale (Suzanne Sieber) opens the show singing about a rousing “Fancy Dress;” and although she is perpetually forgetful, she remembers with her butler Underling (Billy Breed) that “Love Is Always Lovely in the End” in a cute number sure to bring smiles as the two soft-shoe their way toward newfound bliss.
To the end we must wait to meet the last cast member, a pilot named Trix who saves the day and makes our wait well worth it. Anastasia Talley lets the air out of her lungs and leads the full cast with a voice that belts to the heavens in “I Do, I Do in the Sky.” Hallelujah!
Roger DeLaurier directs this spirited, well-voiced cast with zeal and zest, showing love and respect for the musicals of old while at the same time knowing how to smile gently, even laugh out loud at their many eccentricities. His creative team too shows in all respects knowledge and liking for those shows of old through the flapper-and-fur-rich costumes of Kerri Lea Robbins (not to mention a closet full of black-and-white men’s spectator shoes) and the many dances of the era so well choreographed by Keenon Hooks. Mike Kunkel ensures that the sound of the tiny record player fills the Cabaret Theatre’s two levels of dinner tables while Kody Johnson’s lighting turns time and again a dingy apartment into a Broadway stage.
Those visiting Ashland to catch as many of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s offerings are missing a real treat if they do not also sample the fare at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre — both the food and especially the stage shows. Currently, The Drowsy Chaperone is the perfect, sure-fire pleaser for the first-timer or the annual returnee to Ashland. It is definitely going to “take you into another world.”
Rating: 5 E
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