Photos courtesy of Ed Krieger.
This musical-within-a-comedy couldn't be more beguiling. A Man in Chair (Larry Raben) seeks to lift his spirits by listening to a recording of a 1928 musical, "The Drowsy Chaperone". In the musical, stage actress Janet Van de Graaff (Jessica Ernest) plans to marry oil tycoon Robert Martin (Eric Michael Parker). By the end, the Man manages to shake his blues. To say the marriage doesn't go off without a hitch is the understatement of the century.
Under James W. Gruessing's direction for the Norris Center for the Performing Arts, "The Drowsy Chaperone", written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, is a spectacular production. It's funny and wistful. It's vibrant and extravagant. And it's guaranteed to wipe a frown off any face. Its costumes, songs, and dances reflect the stylish look and larger than life feel of the Roaring Twenties. They also capture its rhythm and verve.
The ensemble cast is outlandish. It includes frantic Robert's best man George (Chris Daniels) and Janet's bibulous Drowsy Chaperone (Tracy Lore). They face the impossible task of keeping groom and bride on track. There's Broadway producer Mr. Feldzieg (Greg Nicholas). He wants to stop the marriage lest two Gangsters (Jon M. Wailin and Adam Trent) fill him full of lead. There's aspiring actress Kitty (Noelle Marion), who wants to take Janet's place on Broadway. There's the ludicrous Latin lover Adolpho (Jeff Max). He doesn't cuckold Robert but sure made someone happy. There's the long-suffering house staff, Mrs. Tottendale (Lindsay Brooks) and the Underling (Danny Michaels). And, because you can't have a Roaring Twenties Musical without an aviatrix, there's Trix (Lindsey Martin).
Then there's Raben's Walter Mitty-esque Man. His is the most spectacular performance in an evening full of spectacular performances. For most of the production, he's flamboyant, impassioned, and opinionated. Raben nails the contrast between the Man's vivid imagination and his dull, house mouse life. When he soars, he's infectious, hilarious, and affectionate. You can hear it in his voice. You can see it in his gestures and the way he moves around the room to watch the story. But when life, in the person of a building superintendent coming to fix a fuse, interrupts his rapture, he shuts down. It's like watching someone cycle through a bipolar episode. The effect is chilling.
"The Drowsy Chaperone" is a love letter to musical theatre. With spot-on casting and evocative staging, it shows how musical theatre can transform a daily grind into a breezy love story. Just like the Man in the Chair, we become enchanted spectators, at least until we have to leave.
Performances are 8pm, Friday and Saturday, 2pm, Sunday. The show runs until May 11. Tickets are $45 adults and $25 children 12 and under. The Center is located at 27570 Norris Center Drive, Rolling Hills Estates, 90274. For more information, call (310) 544-0403 or visit www.norriscenter.com.