By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
When Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts announced two years they were mounting The Drowsy Chaperone, there were smiles on many musical theatre lovers’ faces. The reason was their previous 2011 endeavor: a joint production with Rivertown’s own artistic producers Theatre 13 – Kelly Fouchi and Gary Rucker – and the Jefferson Performing Arts Society.
Mounted at the Westwego Theatre for the Performing Arts, their show was one of two versions of The Drowsy Chaperone presented that year. Having the same show run in virtual competition with the other made a lot of theatre people uneasy, especially since the Theatre 13 – JPAS version was running a little over two months later. But it turned out they didn’t have much to fret about; their version won Big Easy Awards for set design (David Raphel), choreography (Kelly Fouchi) and both the Best Supporting Actor and Actress in a Musical categories (Brian Peterson and Carrie Hill).
Those who saw the outstanding production were thrilled by several top-notch performances, especially that of Ricky Graham in his role of the Man in Chair, a curmudgeon who loves the old musicals of the past and who helps to animate the stage with the cast of a long-forgotten work with the title The Drowsy Chaperone. This show-within-a-show concept cleverly allows the audience to be transported back in time while taking in the acerbic criticism of the Man in Chair.
As good as he was 11 years ago, Graham is even better with this production. It’s not unlike donning a pair of well-worn, but comfortable shoes for his stage persona. He is both humorous and endearing as he allows his character to be transported to a personal nirvana by playing the original cast record and making his snide and snarky remarks to the audience about the real life performers who had assumed the roles back in 1928.
Beneath it all, though, is the Man in Chair’s enduring love of musicals, which the book by Bob Martin (“The Prom”) and Don McKellar and music and lyrics by Lisa Lampert and Greg Morrison emphasize. All four of these creative team members won Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score, respectively.
Playing the titular role is Chrissy Bowen, the “drowsy” chaperone whose duty is to keep the bride and the groom apart. She is never seen without a drink in her hand or the thought of another one off her mind. Indeed, in the Tottendale home, where the wedding is to be held, there is no short supply of alcohol, despite this being in the height of Prohibition.
Bowen’s homage to drinking, “As We Stumble Along,” is a tour-de-force that permits her to belt
In addition to Graham, several other performers from the previous iteration of The Drowsy Chaperone have returned with this new Rivertown Theaters show. These include David Hoover in the role of sleazy Broadway producer Feldzieg, Carrie Black as ditzy chorine Kitty and Matthew Mickal as one of two gangsters masquerading as pastry chefs.
Bryce Slocumb returns to the stage as leading man Robert Martin opposite leading lady Janet Van De Graaff, portrayed by Mandi Mueller. Both of these performers are at the top of their craft, dancing and singing to near perfection in “Accident Waiting to Happen.” Mueller enjoys additional musical moments in “Show Off,” wherein the Broadway star proclaims her intention to leave the Great White Way to become Robert’s wife.
Playing Feldzieg, Hoover schemes to keep Janet on stage as his star performer and away from the bridal bower. Feldzieg owes an unnamed investor in his theater, who is suggested to be an underworld figure. He sends two of his “boys” disguised as pastry chefs (Ryan Nocito and Matthew Mickal) to survey the situation and guarantee that his investment continues to pay off.
Both Mickal and Nocito play well as the heavies in scenes with Hoover and Black, the latter of whom plays a ditzy no-talent showgirl with verve. All of them have their star turns in the number “Toledo Surprise,” which closes out Act One.
Overall, the characters are designed to be, at best, two-dimensional. The genesis of the work took root when the real life Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaff were to be married and their friends – McKellar, Lambert and Morrison – came up with an homage to the grand Broadway musicals of yesteryear. Later, what later became the show within a show concept emerged and Martin played the Man in Chair himself, shaping the final version of the book with McKellar.
Louis Dudoussat, as the butler Underling, gets to play straight man to Hannah Rachal’s clueless host, Mrs. Tottendale, a role originated by Georgia Engel on Broadway. Calling her simple is giving her a compliment. There are a number of clever comedy scenes employed by the two, who enjoy one special duet “Love Is Always Lovelier in the End.”
Director Gary Rucker cast himself in the role of Adolpho, the Latin Lothario with more libido than sense. The role is guaranteed to elicit laughs and, indeed, he did generate more than his share of chuckles and guffaws, particularly in his one spotlighted number in which he preens about the stage singing his own praises “I Am Adolpho.” Bowen also highly contributes to this comedic piece.
David Raphel designed an elaborate set for this production with fabulous costumes by Kelsey Brehm and superb lighting (Stephen Turber) and sound designs (Kage Laney and Marc Fouchi). Jennifer Delatte contributed as the musical director, her first outing for a major production at Rivertown.
The Drowsy Chaperone, directed by Gary Rucker, finishes its run at Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts, 325 Minor Street in Kenner with shows on Thursday, March 24 through Sunday, March 27. For tickets call 504-461-9475 or click here.