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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Drowsy Chaperone’ brims with charm

Music Theatre is in top musical comedy form.

PHOTO: Parker Drew and Holly Prast are featured in the Music Theatre of St. Norbert College production of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Mark A. Jackson photo

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Many full-bodied productions have been mounted over the 53 years of Music Theatre of St. Norbert College. “The Drowsy Chaperone” (4½ stars out of 5) ranks among those a notch above. Performances of the charm-driven musical comedy continue through June 22 in Webb Theatre of St. Norbert College. Info: tickets.snc.edu.

The show transports the audience into the living room of a musical theater geek. The fellow, called The Man in the Chair, is genial. His love and admiration for giddy, nostalgic shows of the past are infectious. He’s especially taken by “The Drowsy Chaperone” from November 1928. In ways of the grand illusion of theater, “The Drowsy Chaperone” (which is fictional) is revived in the living room of The Man in the Chair. He fills the audience in on the show, the characters, the cast members and their back stories. He comments. He analyzes. He gossips. He tells tales on the (fictional) stars in the show, and he tells tales on himself and his life – once married, dominant mother, vanished father, etc. This is wholly absorbing.

A key illusion is The Man in the Chair is playing the re-mastered, vinyl cast recording of “The Drowsy Chaperone” on his turntable, and what he envisions the audience sees. The audience sees the whole show – snappy dancing, flashy costuming, colorful and stylish acting and all.

The show is chock full of excellent individual performances.

Parker Drew IS The Man in the Chair. The affection that The Man in the Chair has for a beloved show of days gone by breathes through Parker Drew. A master of pause and timing, Parker Drew plays up one of his lines that has taken on new meaning by news this week in Wisconsin. The Man in the Chair talks about the show’s gay wedding, which had a different meaning in 1928 than it does today; Parker Drew subtly tweaks the reference and brings it to the here and now. The show is smart in the first place, and Parker Drew boosts that along with his sterling performance.

Speaking of sterling, Holly Prast is spot on as the you-love-me, I-love-me STAR Janet Van De Graaff. Looking like a glittery image from a showbiz magazine, Holly Prast delivers in look, song, dance and aura. The song, “Show Off,” is meant to stop the show with Janet Van De Graaff whipping through her talents like no other star, and Holly Prast pulls it off, vocal gymnastics, physical gymnastics (cartwheels and splits) and performance derring-do galore. Throughout the show, Holly Prast/Janet Van De Graff is a clothes horse, with one fabulous, form-fitting outfit after another. Overall, the show has a lot of costuming flair, with clothes and footwear fitting the period.

Delightful roles abound – Lorry Stiles as the oh-so-knowing (tipsy) Drowsy Chaperone, Jon Weiss as the dance-happy/roller-skating groom, Evan Lloyd as his equally dance-happy best man who will never forget a thing, Susan Elliott and Michael Ajango as the corny vaudeville team plugged into the storyline, Ann Preiss Gray and Ana Lissa Bakken as the rhythmic and comical gangsters/pastry chefs, Caitlin Lloyd and Warren Elliott as the wannbe star and the against-the-wall producer, April Rose Strom-Johnson as the jaunty aviatrix and, last but certainly, certainly not least, James Prast as the fiery Latin matinee idol Aldolpho, who sweeps women off their feet.

Director/choreographer Alicia Birder infuses the production with precise timing. That’s found in the way Aldolpho turns and spins, and when he repeatedly drops his cane – and tosses his cane to the Drowsy Chaperone. It’s found in how the two Gangsters move as a team. It’s found in Janet Van De Graaff’s outrageous showboating scene. There’s a strong dose of tap dancing in the show – lots and lots of timing – and it’s mostly pretty good. Of course, music is all about timing, and music director Kent Paulsen makes sure so very much runs smoothly.

While The Man in the Chair and the show worship the past, they’re not totally stuck there. The Man in the Chair drops a few choice observations that bring the show to today, too. “The Drowsy Chaperone” is more sophisticated than it might seem at first glance, and this production has a feeling of wholeness to it.

***

Creative: Music and lyrics – Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison; Book – Bob Martin, Don McKellar; director and choreographer Alicia Birder; musical director – Kent Paulsen; producer – Dudley Birder; scenic design – April Beiswenger; costume design – Michelle Nelson; costume coordinator – Tricia Adams; light design – Jack Rhyner; sound design – Chris Gabryszek; hair/make-up design – Lois Gegare.

Cast: Man in the Chair – Parker Drew; Underling – Michael Ajango; Mrs. Tottendale – Susan Elliott; Robert Martin – Jon Weiss; Feldzieg – Warren Elliott; George – Evan Lloyd; Gangster 1/Monkey – Ana Lissa Bakken; Gangster 2/Monkey – Ann Preiss Gray; Kitty/Monkey – Caitlin Lloyd; Aldolpho – James Prast; Janet Van De Graaff – Holly Prast; The Drowsy Chaperone – Lorry Stiles; Trix the Aviatrix/Mary – April Rose Strom-Johnson; Reporter #1/Owen – James Marker; Reporter #2/Doris – Carrie Platten Liebhauser; Photographer #1/Waiter – Theo Terrell; Photographer #2/Monkey/Frank – Cody Finer; Helen – Rebecca Schaberg; Emperor – James Prast; American Lady – Lorry Stiles; Superintendent – Keith Lutz; Ensemble – Cody Finer, April Rose Strom-Johnson, Carrie Platten Liebhauser, Keith Lutz, James Marker, Rebecca Schaberg, Theo Terrell.

Songs

Act I

“Fancy Dress,” Mrs. Tottendale

“Cold Feets,” Robert Martin, George

“Show Off,” Janet Van De Graaff

“Spit Take,” Mrs. Tottendale, Underling

“As We Stumble Along,” The Drowsy Chaperone

“Accident Waiting to Happen,” Robert Martin, Janet Van De Graaff

Toledo Surprise,” Gangster #1, Gangster #2, Feldzieg

“Message from a Nightingale,” Kitty, American Lady, Emperor

Act II (though there is no intermission)

“Bride’s Lament,” Janet Van De Graaff, Man in the Chair, Robert Martin, Ensemble, Circus Trainer, Monkeys

“Love is Always Lovely,” Mrs. Tottendale, Underling

“Wedding Bells #2,” George, Trix, Robert Martin, Janet Van De Graaff

“I Do, I Do in the Sky,” Trix, Company

“Finale Ultimo,” with “As We Stumble Along,” Man in the Chair, Company

***

THE VENUE: The 184-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The Webb stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.

THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had a lot of friends in the community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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