Easily chatting with the audience as if those thousand or more people gathered in the Ahmanson Theatre were a single, close friend, the Man decides to share with us one of his favorite bubbly-as-champagne musical comedies of the 1920's: The Drowsy Chaperone. As he pulls out the record (yes, record!) and sets it on the turntable, he sighs that its scratchy sound is like a time machine starting up -- and, just like that, the refrigerator doors become a magic portal through which the madcap characters of the old musical enter one by one. They introduce themselves and set up the story of the show in the effervescent opening number, "Fancy Dress."
The show within the show is light as air; the characters and relationships have the density of cotton candy, the plot twists are ridiculously simple and easily spotted from the back row of the highest balcony, and there is (of course) a happy ending. It's all about being whisked away to another time and place that is more joyous and full of color than everyday life in the present.
The Drowsy Chaperone concerns Janet (the radiant and graceful Sutton Foster), a beautiful actress who's about to throw away her career in order to marry Robert (Troy Britton Johnson, appropriately deep of voice and manly in disposition, even when he tap dances his martial jitters away in "Cold Feets"). Naturally, Janet fell in love with Robert the instant they met and is now ready to play happy housewife -- or so she thinks. Her doubts about leaving the spotlight are exposed in the dazzling "Show Off," in which Foster manages to perfectly execute a series of one-handed cartwheels. (Having recently broken her wrist, she wears a flesh colored cast.)
Janet is accompanied by her chaperone (an earthy Beth Leavel), whose job it is to keep the bride and groom from seeing each other on the wedding day. But, this being the Prohibition era, the chaperone brings her own portable bar with her and indulges at every whim -- thus leading to the "drowsy" description. Also attending the nuptials is Janet's producer, Feldzieg (the incomparable Lenny Wolpe), who is desperate to stop the wedding so as not to lose his irreplaceable star. To that end, he arranges for a rather buffoonish, self-proclaimed ladies man named Aldolpho (Danny Burstein) to seduce Janet -- but the plan goes awry and leads to other lightweight plot complications. Feldzieg also has to deal with a pair of slightly goofy gangsters (Jason Kravits and Garth Kravits) who infiltrate the wedding party as pastry chefs, leading to the show's biggest and brightest production number, the hilarious "Toledo Surprise." And everyone has to deal with Trix, the aviatrix (Kecia Lewis-Evans, who has a powerful, gorgeous voice). Her unexpected appearance helps save the day and leads to the high-flying finale, "I Do, I Do In the Sky."
Because the conceit of the show's framing device is that we're seeing and hearing The Drowsy Chaperone as the Man in Chair plays the record for us, the "actors" stutter when the record skips -- and the action freezes altogether at such interruptions as a ringing telephone or the Man gushing about why a particular romantic scene his favorite, explaining why another scene is so lame, or providing some back story on the lives of the "actors." When these interruptions are brief, they add to the frivolity and humor of the show; but, on occasion, they are distracting and disruptive.
Yet this is a minor quibble in regard to an otherwise outstanding production, aided by David Gallo's inventive, colorful scenic design, Gregg Barnes's simply sumptuous period costumes, cheery lighting by Ken Billington and Brian Monahan, and Phil Reno's sprightly musical direction. As an evening of pure musical theater, The Drowsy Chaperone is thoroughly delightful and charming.
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