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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

The Drowsy Chaperone Still Wide Awake
at the 5th Avenue Theatre

The Drowsy Chaperone
Noble Shropshire and
Georgia Engel

One of the most ingenious Broadway musicals of the past decade or so, The Drowsy Chaperone appropriately ends its national tour at the 5th Avenue Theatre, a grand old house that well may have once housed the kind of frothy, uber-silly 1920s-style musicals that Drowsy so expertly sends up. What's more, Casey Nicholaw, whose name seems to be attached as director/choreographer to every other musical these days, cut his choreographic teeth on an unmemorable musical of The Prince and the Pauper less than a decade back (with none other than reigning Broadway hunk Cheyenne Jackson in the chorus).

But I digress. More than anything, The Drowsy Chaperone belongs here because it is an audience show. True, the winks and nudges to the show queens in the house, supplied amply by the central Man in Chair character, are numerous, but it is the crowning glory of the Tony-winning script by Bob Martin and Don McKellar and perfect pastiche musical score by composer-lyricists Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison that the show never is too much of an in-joke for the non-musical theatre groupies in the audience. And Nicholaw's direction is knowing and not overdone, while his choreography is zany and smoothly executed.

The Man in Chair, in the comfort of his cozily overcrowded and kitschy digs, introduces the audience to a typically zany, forgotten faux musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, via a two-record (yes, as in vinyl) set of the entire show which spins into life, peppered with his asides about the real-life performers who played in the show way back when. The plot is piffle about a Broadway star about to leave her fame behind, her cute but vacuous intended, her frequently besotted female chaperone, a ditsy lady of the manor house where the wedding is about to take place, and at least a dozen other charmingly cliché, stereotypical characters. At what would be the intermission, the Man excuses himself to use the restroom, and puts on the 2nd disc entr'acte. Except, it's the wrong record, and suddenly we hear a dreadfully non-PC and hysterically funny number, "Message from a Nightingale," which may be the zenith of the show. But the Man returns and sets us back on track as Drowsy wends its way to the inevitable happy ending, with just about everyone getting wed to someone!

An ensemble show though Drowsy may be, it would fall apart without the right actor as Man in Chair. Co-author Bob Martin was a most-deserving Tony nominee in the role, which he owns as much as, say, Harvey Fierstein owns Edna Turnblad. That said, after an initial feeling that he was a bit too young to be obsessed with 1920s musicals, I was won over by Jonathan Crombie's Man in Chair. Crombie gives a warm, funny performance that anchors this touring company. As the Broadway baby bride-to-be Janet Van de Graaff, Andrea Chamberlain executes her demandingly athletic, all stops out "Show Off" song and dance tour de force dazzlingly and manages to keep a straight face throughout the show's giddiest number, "Monkey on a Pedestal." Mark Ledbetter as her vapid groom-to-be Robert is no slacker as a hoofer himself, as he shows most impressively in "Accident Waiting to Happen," staged with him blindfolded, on roller skates! Alicia Irving is a standout as the Chaperone who is drowsy due to an excess of tippling, and she socks across her character's mock anthem "Stumble Along" with winking bravado. Richard Vida as George, the best man, shows off real old-school panache in his dance specialty "Cold Feets" accompanied by a tap-happy Ledbetter. As the addled but endearing hostess Mrs. Tottendale, Georgia Engel, the beloved sitcom dumb blonde, is a daffy delight and paired perfectly with Noble Shropshire as her droll, faithful Underling. Dale Hensley as the fiery latin fool Aldolpho goes a bit over the top with his shtick-heavy role, but twin brothers Paul and Peter Riopelle nail their daffy roles as a pair of gangsters passing themselves off as pastry chefs, and Natasha Yvette Williams wows with her big voice and exuberance in the small but key role of Trix, the Aviatrix.

David Gallo fully deserved his 2006 Tony award for a set design that manages to brilliantly encapsulate a crowded Manhattan apartment and 1920s Broadway show simultaneously, while costume designer Gregg Barnes' technicolor-hued and period-perfect costumes are at the high level one expects from him. Larry Blank's Tony-nominated orchestrations succeed totally in capturing the period sound.

The Drowsy Chaperone didn't get a near long enough Broadway run, but Seattle audiences have another week to catch it here in all its glory. It is the perfect tonic for a country that is only now beginning to hope that happy days, such as those conjured in Drowsy may indeed be here again.

The Drowsy Chaperone runs through Tuesday-Sunday through November 16 at the 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave, downtown Seattle. For more info go to www.5thavenue.org or call 206-625-1900.


Photo: Joan Marcus



- David Edward Hughes



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