Laughs and camp accompany
Waukesha Civic Theatre's ‘Drowsy Chaperone’
by marilyn jozwik
Published 5:41 p.m. CT May 1, 2017
Benjamin Johnson and Kendall Yorkey were born too late.
If they were performing in the Broadway musicals of the 1920s, they would be stars. In the year 2017, they have to settle for being quite the stars in Waukesha Civic Theatre’s “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which delightfully pokes fun at Hollywood’s early attempts at the musical comedy.
The show features a fictional musical comedy from 1928, which a middle-aged man (described only as “The Man in the Chair”) plays from a record in his shabby, modern-day warehouse-style apartment. The man, suffering from a “non-specific sadness,” plays the recording, one of his favorites, and his mood lightens as the show comes to life, with colorful characters in period costumes appearing right in his apartment.
During the show, he provides thoughts on the performers, the show and theater in general, such as, “The overture is a musical appetizer.”
At times, The Man pauses the recording to comment, and the performers are frozen in action. Or, the record skips and performers repeat the same line several times until The Man fixes it. On one occasion, the power goes out in The Man’s apartment and the action in the musical comes to a standstill on a darkened stage; performers gradually come to life once the power is restored.
The show is an amalgamation of generic stage characters and situations – gangsters dressed as bakers, a Broadway producer, a ditzy wannabe star, a Latin lover, a handsome tycoon, a beautiful stage star and her oft-inebriated chaperone, and more.
Story within story
The meat of the musical The Man is playing is the story of Robert (Johnson), a wealthy oil tycoon, and Janet (Yorkey), a Broadway star, on what is supposed to be their wedding day. But the marriage would mean the end to her starring in Busby Berkeley-type Follies produced by Feldzeig (Andrew Byshenk), which are financially successful, so he is doing everything he can to keep them from getting together.
One of his plans is to put a wedge between the two, so he gets a vain Latin lover, Adolpho (Shawn Schmidt), to seduce Janet. But that fails when Adolpho mistakes Janet’s chaperone (Lori Nappe) for Janet.
While Janet and Robert are falling in and out of love on their wedding day, other pairings are taking place, leading to a fabulous finale featuring a bi-plane that “lands” on stage. The rousing “I Do, I Do in the Sky” tune features the lusty singing voice of the aviatrix (Megan Miller) piloting the craft, with the passengers bobbing on the wings.
The ending gives credence to The Man’s statement: “Everything always works out in musicals.”
This show is much leaner than some versions. Under the direction of Matt Zembrowski, the action keeps moving at a snappy pace and the show is under two hours, while keeping all the campy elements.
Feldzeig (Andrew Byshenk), a Broadway producer, shows his exasperation with the ditzy wannabe star Kitty (Jordan Mullaney), who claims she can read minds, in a scene from Waukesha Civic Theatre's "The Drowsy Chaperone." (Photo: WCT/submitted)
Happily gone is the awkward “The Message from a Nightingale” scene. Instead, Act II opens with the wonderfully done “Bride’s Lament,” a fun romp in which Janet describes how she’d have to give up her many adoring fans to marry Robert, comparing him to a “monkey on a pedestal.” The Man warns the audience to “ignore the lyrics,” which are strange, but the scene is staged in true Follies style, with a quartet of monkey performers and characters carrying huge faces of Robert. Yorkey gets into that number with a diva flair and commanding vocals, just as she does in the “Show Off” number and others.
Johnson has his centerpiece number, too, showing off his keen dancing ability in “Cold Feets,” in which Robert shakes off his pre-nuptial nerves with some tap dancing. The piece got enthusiastic response on opening night, especially after Robert was joined by his best man, George (Michael Skocir), for the latter part of the number.
Johnson might just be the best song and dance man in local community theater, given his equally impressive performances in WCT’s “Gypsy” and Sunset’s “Anything Goes.” He takes this role and not only runs with it, but does some cartwheels as well. He totally engages the audience with his energy and élan. When he quickly turns to flash one of his dazzling smiles, you could almost swear there were little star-like glints dancing off those pearly whites.
Peter Kao as The Man in the Chair has a ton of dialog and breaks down the fourth wall – talks to the audience – in such a natural fashion that he gets lots of response. He conveys his character’s excitement at this little piece of theater and joins in some of the numbers with uninhibited joy.
Schmidt’s Adolpho is sufficiently over the top – it’s hard to be too much so in this role – while Nappe’s Chaperone blends her character’s sophistication and alcoholism nicely. She delivers a pleasant “As We Stumble Along,” the musical’s “Ode to Alcoholism.”
Mike Shelby as Underling and Antoinette Stikl as Mrs. Tottendale are a charming couple, handling the comedy, song and dance with a mature ease. Byshenk gives producer Feldzeig some urgent pacing, while Jordan Mullaney as Kitty is wide-eyed and expressive. Loved the mind-reading bit with her rotating arms and sound effects.
The pastry chef gangsters, played by Cory Klein and Quinn Balz, are really cooking, squeezing a lot of laughs out of the baking puns.
The show’s music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison are pleasant and simple, though not particularly memorable. The recorded music zaps some of the life from the tunes that could have been injected by live musicians. Vocally, this is a strong cast with top-notch solos and good blending voices from the ensemble.
The dancing was a little uneven on opening night, with some dancers a bit tentative in their moves, though Mary McLellan’s choreography is quite fun, especially in the three-ring circus going on in “The Bride’s Lament.”
Costume designer Cecelia Mason-Kuenn set the era nicely with substantial, well-fitting outfits. Even the maids and butler Underling were outfitted well, rather than wearing jerry-rigged costumes such as are often seen in community theater.
If you go
Who: Waukesha Civic Theatre
What: “The Drowsy Chaperone”
When: Through May 14
Where: 264 W. Main St., Waukesha
Tickets/info: waukeshacivictheatre.org; 262-547-0708