Ripped and Roaring ’20s: “The Drowsy Chaperone,” at the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre through July 24
Written by: Thom White – River Cities Reader
The Clinton Area Showboat Theatre’sThe Drowsy Chaperone is fantastically fun. Of course, it helps that the book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, and the music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, are filled with amusing lines, scenarios, and situations. It also helps that this summer’s Showboat cast is so talented, appearing in one impressive production after another, including Thursday night’s performance.
This play has the Showboat company acting out a 1928 musical comedy called The Drowsy Chaperone, which exists only within this particular show. As the man known only as Man in Chair listens to the cast recording, he interjects facts about the show and its actors as the soundtrack comes to life in his living room. As for the show within the show, it’s a ridiculous nod to early-20th-Century musicals, filled with clichés such as mistaken identities, spit takes, and the titular drunken chaperone, played by a Grande Dame of the Theatre in overindulgent ways. Its absurdity is made palpable, though, by the Man in Chair’s interjections – he embraces the oddities and celebrates the fun of it all.
Under the direction of Tommy Iafrate, the Showboat’s production is self-aware, with the actors mugging for the audience and chewing the scenery. (Remarkably designed by Kenneth Verdugo, that scenery includes impressive, spinning wall panels and the cabinet for a Murphy bed, used for cast entrances.) This campily styled, “Look at me!” mess of a play isn’t high art, but it is a wildly amusing joke, with Man in Chair leading us through the ridiculousness of it all, and rendering it a delightful experience.
That narrator is played by Brian LeTraunik with a believably effeminate air and an infectious giddiness. LeTraunik speaks directly to the audience (with Thursday’s crowd sometimes speaking back) while also interjecting himself into the soundtrack’s scenes, or performing the choreography while sitting – his face filled with elation – and listening to his favorite musical, and the actor is charmingly awkward as his self-made shut-in lets loose to enjoy the memory of the show.
That show (again, the one within the show) is utterly silly, but also a wonderful ensemble piece. Each of the Showboat’s actors are playing actors portraying characters in the musical, and the most obvious at accomplishing this feat is Colleen Johnson; playing the chaperone, her actress often breaks character to accept accolades from the audience. Johnson’s performance reminds me of the formerly famous puppet from Waylon Flowers & Madame (and I mean that as a compliment). Her facial expressions are set in a way that gives her the look of that outrageous old broad of a puppet, while Johnson’s often hunched-over posture – with wiry arms and legs, as though she’s drunk – gives the impression of a marionette. Johnson is fascinating to watch, even when she’s not a scene’s center of attention.
And pulling focus here is no easy task, with a stage filled with such talented actors. Brian Bowman and Joseph Feldman ham it up with pun-happy aplomb as the gangsters (disguised as pastry chefs) hired to stop the wedding of the musical’s lead, Janet. Nicole Ferguson plays this showgirl, one giving up fame for an oil tycoon, and makes great use of cutesy smiles, a full-bodied voice, and a sunny though somewhat self-absorbed disposition. Eric Chambliss embodies Janet’s dimwitted, handsome fiancé Robert, and it’s his tap number with Brian Cowing – as Robert’s best man, George – that brought down Thursday’s house. (This impressive routine, choreographed by Sheryl Villa, gets even more extraordinary when it moves into double-time.)
Bello Pizzimenti perfectly overplays the Latin lothario Aldolpho, who’s also employed to break up the wedding. Taylor Wiebers couldn’t be perkier, nor more daft, as Kitty, the chorus girl who wants to fill Janet’s soon-to-be-vacated starring role in the Feldzeig Follies. And Laurel Decker and Patrick Stinson are nicely paired as the absent-minded dowager, Mrs. Tottendale, and her straight-man English butler, Underling.
One thing I was disappointed with in the Showboat’s production was Nattalyee Randall’s role as Trix, the aviatrix who saves the day. With her big, beautiful voice and accompanying moxie, the role doesn’t allow Randall to shine for long, and I was left wanting more displays of her exceptional talents. Despite that unfixable issue, though,The Drowsy Chaperone is incredible fun. In fact, my companion for the evening, who accompanies me to almost every show I see, says it’s the best show he’s seen all year. I’m inclined to agree.
For tickets and information, call (563)242-6760 or visit ClintonShowboat.org.