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'Drowsy Chaperone' is lively awakening
THEATER, BY BOB ABELMAN
'Drowsy Chaperone' is lively awakening
"The Drowsy Chaperone," currently on stage at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, opens in the dark, where a voice says out loud what those dragged to the CVLT by their spouses have been murmuring in their heads: "I hate theater."
"Well, it's so disappointing, isn't it?" says the voice. Musical theater, however, is a wonderful escape from the dreary horrors in the world, he adds, "as long as it is short, free of actors who roam the audience and blessed with a story and a few good songs."
"The Drowsy Chaperone" is exactly that.
When the lights come up, the owner of the voice -- an effeminate, middle-aged loner, played by Don Bernardo, who is our designated best friend for the evening -- is revealed. So, too, is his passion for 1920s musicals, with their catchy show tunes, lightweight plots and cookie-cutter characters. When he plays for us the original vinyl cast album of his favorite show, "The Drowsy Chaperone," it miraculously comes to life as his drab apartment transforms into a Broadway stage during the heyday of glitzy musical theater extravaganzas.
Soon the stage is populated with period Great White Way archetypes: a beautiful starlet, played by Suzanne Davis, giving up fame to marry a rich, self-adoring playboy, played by Ryan Bernstein; her hard-drinking and fun-loving chaperone, played by Libby Merriman; a manipulative Broadway producer, played by Michael Rogan; his air-headed arm-candy, played by Lisa Tarr; a ditzy dowager, played by Tina Burgett-Krause; an aviatrix, played by Alex LaForce-Marzullo; a foreign heartthrob, played by Eric Oswald; and hard-nosed but well intended gangsters, played by Clayton Minder and Jerry Schaber; among others. They recreate their classic production as our effusive host offers a running commentary on its madcap, cellophane storyline.
Much like "The Producers," which is another musical theater parody, "The Drowsy Chaperone" is in the precarious position of making fun of itself. As such, it is a high-wire balancing act of sorts, with performers having to perform well intentionally bad production numbers and required to play realistically purposefully broad characters. This balancing act operates without a net, for, if performances stumble, everything falls into a state of musical-theater mediocrity.
Fortunately, this play and this production of it do nearly everything right.
"The Drowsy Chaperone" is not only blessed with an ingratiating story by Bob Martin and Don McKeller, but it delivers a few good songs by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. There's no mistaking these tunes with those of Cole Porter or the Gershwins, but they hold their own for a show that covers its assets with the subtitle, "a musical within a comedy."
What makes the story so ingratiating is the delightful pretense of our omnipresent host directly addressing the audience and offering his thoughts on the musical he loves so dearly. Much of the commentary takes the form of adoring jabs, such as, "Ignore the lyrics," and, "This scene couldn't be any more ridiculous," which cleverly sidesteps the show's flaws by blatantly acknowledging them.
What makes our host so ingratiating is Mr. Bernardo in the role. He is absolutely brilliant. Careful never to cross that fine line between character and caricature, Mr. Bernardo is thoroughly endearing and an absolute pleasure to watch at all times.
Also wonderful and equally adept at not going over the top in their portrayals are Ms. Merriman, as the Drowsy Chaperone, and Ms. Davis, as the starlet, Janet. Both have gorgeous voices and substantial stage presence and fully understand what the playwrights are intending. Ms. Davis' Janet is gloriously artificial and deadpan, while Ms. Merriman's chaperone is delightfully oblivious to everything except a ripping good time.
Oh, sure, there are flaws in this play. As did the musicals of the 1920s, "The Drowsy Chaperone" offers a showcase for vaudeville novelty acts --such as tap-dancing routines and slapstick comedy -- that fall flat unless performed by true artisans. This makes it tough on community theaters like the CVLT to sell these bits and even tougher on their audiences to watch them.
And, yes, there are problems with this production. Edmond Wolff's functional but unimpressive apartment set undermines its magical transformation to the Broadway stage of our host's vivid imagination. Also, the orchestra, under Anney Jeandrevin's direction, is severely understaffed, which also undermines the magic.
Nonetheless, Marc C. Howard's buoyant direction and choreography keep things lively and push the fun to the forefront. "The Drowsy Chaperone" is a wonderful escape, even for those brought kicking and screaming to the box office.
"The Drowsy Chaperone" continues through April 14 at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, 40 River St., Chagrin Falls. For tickets, $14 to $18, call 440-247-8955.
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