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Spirited ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ Dusts Off Broadway Scrapbook

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CHICAGO – There are few plot archetypes that receive as much in the way of production funding as that which examines- and often heralds- the business of Broadway. From the trying personal life of Fanny Brice to the eruption of a chorus player on 42nd Street, musicals have often reveled to the avidity of their own founts.

HollywoodChicago.com Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 4.0/5.0
Play Rating: 4.0/5.0

Bob Martin was never interested in championing the next Gypsy Rose. Instead, the Second City-trained actor turned his pen- and acidity- to the faults and fallacies of Broadway’s most vulnerable idiosyncrasy, its self-professed geekdom.

Jim Harms (Man In Chair), Adam Pelty (Adolpho) and Linda Balgord (the Drowsy Chaperone) star in “The Drowsy Chaperone” at The Marriott Theatre” target=
Jim Harms (Man In Chair), Adam Pelty (Adolpho) and Linda Balgord (the Drowsy Chaperone) star in “The Drowsy Chaperone” at The Marriott Theatre.
Photo credit: Peter Coombs

So goes the conceit of “The Drowsy Chaperone”, the 2006 Canadian import that is once a skewering excoriation and reflective celebration of its own musical form. The production, which garnered critical if not fiscal acclaim during its Broadway bow, is receiving its nascent Chicago conception at the Marriott Theatre under the mostly stalwart direction of Marc Robin and Doug Peck.

The musical serves as both a nostalgic homage and trenchant pundit of the 1920s Broadway milieu, targeting both its stage productions and abiding fans. The plot threads through Man in Chair (James Harms), a misanthropic adorner of Broadway’s pre-Golden Era in which productions teetered on transparent plots and rousing 11 o’clock turns. He is a staunch adherent of the classical form, one who relishes the palmanship of “Pal Joey” over the du jour of “Rent”.

Sifting through a collection of LPs commemorating the inanity of the stage era, our narrator selects the fictional “The Drowsy Chaperone” under which to perch his needle. The fictive production subsequently unfolds through Man in Chair’s own mental devising. He has, in fact, never attended a performance of “The Drowsy Chaperone”, yet proffers both staging and historical annotation for the piece.

This musical-within-a-comedy fencing is wittily derived and packs enough postmodernist punch to eschew what could be a looming exhaustion. In between professions concerning the whereabouts of “The Drowsy Chaperone’s” now obsolete performers (a fictional litany that spans Vaudevillian stereotypes), Man in Chair experiences a power outage and a skipping record, both of which yield smartly wrested stagnations in the outlier production.

Tyler Hanes (front) and Andy Lupp (back) star in “The Drowsy Chaperone” at The Marriott Theatre” target=
Tyler Hanes (front) and Andy Lupp (back) star in “The Drowsy Chaperone” at The Marriott Theatre.
Photo credit: Peter Coombs

Director-choreographer Robin has mounted a highly stylized musical imbued with elongated tap numbers and walloping vocals. Yet what the production abounds with in pizzazz it wants in cerebral substance, a staple of Martin’s original rendering that positioned it to win Tony awards for both book and score (a showtune limned throwback by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison) as well as a resonance with viewers. Robin’s staging too often engenders farce in place of the book’s reverent and implicit satire. Schmaltzy gags and gimmicks have always found home in “Chaperone” (it is a fete of 1920s flap, after all), but the insight regarding musicals’ position in collective culture requires primary focus.

At its heart, “Chaperone” is a lovesick paean to Broadway and the fact that, despite the lavishness and absurdity, viewers have long found comfort within its melodies. Robin’s work too often waxes on caricature, favoring sexual innuendo, pratfall slapstick, and pun-riddled schtick over its central keynote. Leading man Harms retains the asocial frippery of Man in Chair yet misses the ultimate desperation that jettisons an individual to the welcoming arms of a ten-minute kickline reprise and airborne marriage ceremony (surely services only the most willfully hyperbolic of musicals can tender).

StarMore theater reviews from critic Alissa Norby.
StarMore theater reviews from our other critics.

Yet as befits most productions at the Marriott, Robin has assembled a remarkably adroit cast to handle the nuances of the work. Tari Kelly possesses a vocal astuteness that both carouses and emboldens Broadway starlet Janet Van De Graaf. Chicagoans Gene Wygandt and Paula Scrofano are in delicious comic form as the reluctant, if addled, lovers Underling and Mrs. Tottendale. Broadway performer Linda Balgord churns a shrewdly droll turn as the eponymous character, a woman prone to inhaling a vodka tonic over a designated assistantship to the betrothed Janet.

Despite an emotional void, the dexterous and versatile cast enlists its audience into the frill of its farce. The cultural salutations may be mislaid in this one, but the production’s raptness of sheer energy and merriment warrants its own trip to the footlights.

”The Drowsy Chaperone” runs through June 27, 2010 at the Marriott Theatre at 10 Marriott Drive in Lincolnshire. To purchase tickets or for more information please visit here. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Alissa Norby

Staff Writer

© 2010 Alissa Norby, HollywoodChicago.com

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