Stripped Down For a Small Stage, The Drowsy Chaperone Still Delivers Big Time Entertainment

Most stag nights produce embarrassing photos and a wicked hangover, not a Tony Award-winning musical. The Drowsy Chaperone, created by friends for the wedding of Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaf, slowly expanded through its Canadian incarnations from a short spoof of early musicals to a full Broadway production in 2006, snagging its collaborators a boatload of awards in the process.

At Theatre Three, presenting this splashy, bubbly, and larger-than-life musical probably turned up all sorts of challenges: How to deliver a 1920s pastiche without the jokes falling flat? How to design a grand, exaggerated show for a smaller space? How to fit more than 20 dancing people on that tiny stage? Somehow, Jac Adler and Michael Serrecchia not only succeeded, they killed it harder than Ethel Merman belting out one of the show’s signature tune (musical theater joke; brace yourselves, there will be more).

The Drowsy Chaperone is both a loving valentine to, and a good old-fashioned skewering of, musicals before the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein came along. The show’s name is the same as one man’s favorite cast album, a record from a show he’s too young to have seen but nonetheless adores. Every time he sets the needle, the characters spring to life within the drab city apartment where he hides from the disappointments of real life. Known simply as “The Man In Chair,” this protagonist escorts us through his beloved show, peppering the scenes with juicy gossip about its once-famous stars and cynical observations about its old-fashioned shortcomings. As the beige-clad “Man,” Rob McCollum is able to express his gratitude at escaping into the candy-colored world of young lovers, mistaken identities, bumbling gangsters, and happy endings with heart-wrenching realism, a fact he deftly tries to smooth over with plenty of caustic wit and dry commentary. Without a “Man” as engaging as McCollum, the Chaperone’s world wouldn’t be half as inviting.

I can identify with the Man’s desire to share such a vivid world; as a child, I often insisted that my friends come over not to play, but to listen to both the concept and original Broadway cast recordings of Jekyll & Hyde so that they could experience the differences in tone and character. But even non-theater geeks will appreciate many of the subtle references and theater in-jokes that librettists Bob Martin and Don McKellar have included. Along with the loopy, catchy songs by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, the show-within-a-show floats along on an effervescent champagne bubbles.

Janet (Erica Peterman), a famous showgirl, is preparing to marry wealthy oil baron Robert Martin (Jeremy Dumont) and retire from the stage. Her producer, frantic at the thought of losing his profitable leading lady, is being stalked by two disguised gangsters intent on securing the financial future of the show for their boss, its chief investor. If you think this sounds anything like the plot of Kiss Me, Kate, raise your hand.

While there’s no Shakespeare here, there is ample opportunity for the cast to ham it up. Delightfully chewing the scenery is a bevy of local favorites, from Arianna Movassagh as a dim chorine, to Jenny Thurman as a scatterbrained dowager, to Marisa Diotalevi as the titular tipsy chaperone. Brian Hathaway swaggers and staggers in a ridiculous Pepe Le Pew wig with side-splitting results as the Latin lothario Adolpho, and Jeremy Dumont reminds us how sorely we need to see more tap dancing in the Dallas area.

Jeffrey Schmidt’s clever set design uses the entire theater, with actors popping up where you’d least expect them. The cartoonish furniture and props add just the right amount of camp, and pair beautifully with Michael Robinson’s glitzy, period-inspired costumes. The only artistic quibble comes with Richard Frohlich’s sound design. Since the actors perform without microphones, every piped-in sound effect announces itself with a jarring increase in volume.

Backed by a band of five musicians and conducted by either Terry Dobson or Vonda Bowling (depending on the performance), the sound may not be that of a lush, full orchestra, but it will certainly get your feet tapping. As The Man in Chair states, the whole point of musical theater is be entertained.

Photo: (From left) Robert McCollum, Erica Peterman, Marisa Diotalevi (Credit: Ken Birdsell)