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“Drowsy Chaperone”: Lotsa laughs, songs and fun

By | 2018-01-16T14:47:39-05:00 November 25th, 2010|Entertainment|

By Michael H. Margolin

Phil Powers as A Man in a Chair. Photo: Jude Walton

The charming musical “The Drowsy Chaperone” gets its first professional Michigan outing at Ann Arbor’s Performance Network and proves that its Broadway success was not a fluke. The show is genuinely funny, tuneful and, ultimately, moving, if you give yourself over to it.
This is achieved, in part, through the wonderfully clever concept invented by co-authors Bob Martin and Don McKellar: A Man in a Chair (Phil Powers) tells us he is taking us on a nostalgic trip back to 1928 and a musical he loves dearly (originally played on Broadway by co-author Martin).
Chatting with the audience – he is somewhat prissy and earnestly pedantic – he tells us about his hopes as he sits in a darkened theater waiting for the magic to happen on stage: “Please,” he prays, “let it be good.” He swears to us that this show, one of his favorites, will be, and he serves as our guide throughout, telling us the actors’ career highlights as the show is enacted in his living room, gliding in and out of the action on his rolling armchair, pausing only to change the LP (yes, records!). There is no intermission, either.
What does he serve up: a plot that, like “Kiss Me Kate,” features gangsters and battling lovers, which, like “The Boyfriend,” satirizes as it sentimentalizes, and like a whole bunch of musicals of the 1920s and ’30s dishes up a plot that, at its best, serves the music and dancing.
As one of the gangsters, disguised as a pastry chef, says to the producer who is losing his leading lady to the arms of a Lothario putting the show at risk and threatening the director with extinction: “Have I made myself eclair?”
Yes, outrageous puns and some eyebrow-raising double entendres – from the Man in a Chair – and a classic spit-take scene, later glorified and abused by Jerry Lewis in his film career, are there along with tap dancing, pratfalls and a leading man roller skating while wearing a blindfold.
All of this is packaged in a mere two hours or so, and never do director Carla Milarch and choreographer Phil Simmons allow the show to drag. Along the way, they invent terrific steps on stairs and on mantelpieces, and the cast moves gracefully in and out of charmingly decorated pivoting panels at rear stage and a swing door at stage left. Monika Essen shows every bit of her ingenuity in putting this rather large show on a stage several times smaller than that its Broadway sibling, and Suzanne Young’s costumes are terrifically apt.
If I must quibble, Sybil – to borrow from Noel Coward – what was the lighting designer, Justin Lang, doing during the rehearsals and previews up to Friday’s opening night? The actors are sometimes giving their all in less light than we need to appreciate them; sometimes they move from half light to near darkness, and where, oh where, is that follow spot when it is needed?
I cannot explain this lapse: Did director Milarch cut off her lighted nose to spite her darkened face?
Well, Sybil, enough of the show is gloriously seen and the performers are more often quite visible: Phil Powers as the fussy narrator is very much in control without seeming to be – funny, eloquent and charming. I felt I could have spent several more hours talking theater with him. It is with malicious relish that he describes the death of the (fictional) actor playing Adolpho: It involves five days post-mortem, his villa and some poodles, but Powers never overstates the case, leaving that to the writers.
This being a musical, tribute is owed to Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison for the pastiche score that is tuneful, if not memorable. To put it another way: It’s as good as it needs to be and includes such ditties as “Monkey on a Pedestal,” “I Am Adolpho,” “I Do, I Do, in the Sky” and the remarkable anthem “As We Stumble Along,” which Naz Edwards belts with all the conviction of a Wagnerian soprano singing of redemption.
To a man and woman, the cast within the musical is super: Kudos to Linda Rabin Hammell, Charles Sutherland, Brian Thibault, Matt Andersen, Mark Hammell, Eva Rosenwald, Andrea Mellos and Lisa Lauren Smith. Kudos and a hats off to Naz Edwards as the drowsy one (who fails to watch the bride to be and therefore enables the plot to take its wrong turns on the way to a happy ending); to Pete Podolski and Phill Harmer who excel in dancing, singing and pseudo-gangsterizing. Finally, kudos, hat and a bouquet to Scott Crownover who, as Adolpho, makes a simple two word line into the biggest laugh in the show, but is funny, graceful and pitiable at the same time – after all, there are those poodles in the villa.
I cannot but think that the final words on this show will be “Held Over”

‘The Drowsy Chaperone’
Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Thursday-Sunday through Jan. 2, 2011; no shows Thanksgiving and Christmas Days; added performance Wednesday, Nov. 24. $30-$46. 734-663-0681.

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.