Sometimes, on a trip to the theatre you don’t know what to expect. You sit in the dark, waiting for the lights to come up, hoping that the experience will somehow transport you to another world. You hope that it will make you feel something. That it will make you forget what’s going on in your own life for a while and bring you an entertaining story filled with characters that delight or fascinate or simply amuse.
This is how the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre’s latest production, The Drowsy Chaperone, begins: a man in his living room (Frank J. Sikich) speaking through the darkness and talking about his love of classic musicals and his hopes and desires for a night at the theatre. When the lights finally do come up, he introduces us to his favorite musical, a show from 1928 called The Drowsy Chaperone. As he sets the record on the turntable, his living room becomes the scene of the wedding between handsome Robert Martin (Robert Paul Simon) and glamorous showgirl Janet Van De Graff (Laura Gerla). Presided over by an aging dowager, Mrs. Tottendale (Theresa Knox), and her exasperated servant Underling (the incomparably short Mark Diers), the wedding brings together an odd collection of characters: George (David Gerla), the best man, with ribbons tied on his fingers to remind him of all of his expected duties; Adolfo (Chris Feldmann), a “latin lover” with a legendary libido; Feldzeig (Kevin Kemarly), a growling producer terrified of losing his star to wedded bliss and Kitty (Rebekah Brewer), the ditzy wannabe starlet hoping to take her place; two Gangsters disguised as pastry chefs (Clayton Perala and Louie Babcock), tasked with making sure that Feldzeig either stops the wedding – or stops breathing; Trix the Aviatrix (Rebekah Ehlert), a stranded pilot who has little to do with the wedding but provides a couple of necessary plot points and some fun musical moments; and of course, the titular Drowsy Chaperone (Amy Driscoll) whose only job is to keep the bride and groom separated until the ceremony. Kathleen Booth and Kandis Pender round out the ensemble, filling in as maids, reporters, and also (along with Perala) provide a subtle but hilarious reference to Rio as the show is heading towards its conclusion. The show is directed and choreographed by Casey Paradies with music direction by the delightful Karen Braaten.
This show is a challenge for the Fire Hall; it’s a large cast, and the stage at the Fire Hall is, shall we say, intimate. There are moments when the entire cast is on stage and it would be easy for the space to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of bodies. But Paradies does a great job of placing the actors and planning the movements so that one never really feels claustrophobic and the whole scene feels like a spirited bit of organized chaos. Characters weave in and out of dance patterns that have them crossing the floor and back again, and nothing feels out of place. The casting for the show is pitch perfect and each actor brings a little special flavor to their role. The show relies on a gentle mocking of the traditions and tropes of classic musicals, the stock characters and situations, and this winking acknowledgement allows the characters to embody certain stereotypes of the era while simultaneously playing the shock and surprise of their inclusion for laughs. Robert, nervous about getting married, sings a song about “Cold Feets” to help steady his nerves. When George asks him what he’s doing, he says, “Just singing a song an old negro taught me!” That line is jarring, one of those moments where you feel like you shouldn’t laugh; the audience reaction at both performances I attended was a mixture of laughs that explode despite an individual’s best intentions and stiffled chuckles followed by sly looking around to see if others noticed or are laughing too. Sikich’s character is there to help you through, constantly providing context and reminding you that the show is a product of a simpler (read: less culturally sensitive) time.
The man also provides background on the “actors” who played in The Drowsy Chaperone, telling you about their lives (and deaths), and in the process also reveals little tidbits about his own life. Musicals are often the most blatantly escapist of the theatrical pleasures (the man dryly notes that in real life, the only people who burst into song are “the hopelessly deranged”), and it is clear that this man has some history that he is trying to escape. His sexuality is not so subtly hinted at, and Sikich plays up every stereotype of the tweedy theatre queen (though he does so lovingly, and with a certain depth not often given to this type of character). The inclusion of questionable portrayals of racial and ethnic difference is done in a clever way that doesn’t excuse it or make it seem as though it’s something of a different time (i.e., “Wow, it’s a good thing we don’t do/say/think that anymore!”) but rather acknowledges that it has merely changed forms: “So we’ve banished them to Disney…let the kids sort it out!” It’s a moment that gives the audience permission to think about all of the guilty pleasures we enjoy even if we know they may not be “politically correct.” Those entertainments that are, at best, “problematic” (to use the parlance of the day). And that struggle is real. Even though I know I probably shouldn’t, I get a little misty every time Pocahontas paints with all the colors of the wind. Every. Damn. Time.
Adolpho is perhaps the most pronounced of these shocking stereotypes as the Latin Lothario; in case the audience doesn’t get the point, he appears briefly in an even more off-color moment as a Chinese emperor in a scene that calls to mind the casting of Italians to play Native Americans in spaghetti Westerns in the 50s, as though ethnicity can be created with wigs or squinted eyes. Feldmann takes this character to a hilarious extreme, undulating his hips suggestively within every conversation and making entrances and exits as if he were running with the bulls in Pamplona. His portrayal is just the right mix of camp ridiculousness and grinning naiveté to give the character at least a couple of facets to show off. This character is the most extreme, but other serve the same purpose: Kemarly’s Feldzeig is harried and cantankerous, growling at Kitty and cowering from the gangsters; Knox’s Tottendale is as pleasantly stupefied by everything happening around her as Diers’ Underling is unphased by his need to constantly interpret and explain (not to mention absorb – those who have seen the show will understand!). Babcock and Perala are particularly delightful as the gangsters, making whimsical dessert puns and threatening Feldzeig with an ominous “Toledo Surprise.”
The bride and groom are the least ridiculous of the cast of rowdy characters, but even they have great humorous moments. Simon’s Robert is all body and no brain, a handsome dope whom Janet refers to as her monkey. As he fumbles around the stage on roller skates (while blindfolded, no less), this description seems apt. Simon plays the character with charm and a wide-eyed earnestness that makes his love for Janet seem sweet and sincere, the exact sort of fluffy emotional confection one expects to find in musicals of a bygone era. Gerla’s Janet is slinky and catlike as she half-heartedly swears off show business, claiming she “don’t want to show off no more” while cartwheeling and kick-lining her way around the stage. She is clearly conflicted about choosing love over fame, and Gerla presents a splendid mix of doe-eyed girl-in-love combined with the accomplished stage diva who knows how to play an audience like a fine Stradivarius. The obstacle in their love story is contrived, but as the man in the chair notes it’s all part and parcel of a musical world where things always work out in the end.
The Chaperone, played by the fictional Beatrice Stockwell (an Ethel Merman type known for her “rousing anthems”), spends most of the play in a boozy haze, but she’s never so far out of her senses that she can’t manipulate the action around her: she sends Janet out to rendezvous with Robert (despite this being antithetical to her one responsibility) to help her decide whether to choose love or fame, she intercepts the scheming Aldolpho and seduces the seducer, and as the barriers between the show and the man narrating for the audience begin to crumble she helps him stumble, bumble, and fumble along into facing the pain he sublimates with catchy tunes and droll commentary. And in the end, Sikich’s “man in the chair” brings it all together with an emotional finish that brings a new dynamic to the pithy and sarcastic host we’ve known so far in the show.
This production is a little like a Sour Patch Kid: it starts out sour, and then is sweet. There are so many wonderful moments, but the audience has to be willing to give in to the ridiculousness. The show relies heavily on self-aware camp and putting the audience into moments that are delightfully uncomfortable. Once the audience surrenders to the story, allowing Sikich’s man to lead them through the rough parts, they are in for a wonderful theatrical experience.
The technical aspects also line up to help this production succeed. C. J. Leigh, Laura Nelson, and Dave Dauphinais did a great job with the set, finishing just under the wire (when I arrived for the preview, there were bits of lumber still being carried out the side door – ahh, live theatre!). Speaking of the set, while it appears quite simple it does in fact have a few tricks up its sleeve; the moment where Trix the Aviatrix re-appears, plane and all, will make the audience marvel at just how much can be accomplished in a small space. The costumes support the whimsy of the show and Mare Thompson and Lynn Liepold have put together a visually interesting collection of looks for the ensemble (for those who were curious when they saw my name in the program for “additional costume pieces,” I can only take credit for the headpiece worn by Brewer in the Nightingale scene; the gorgeous look of the show is the result of Mare and Lynn’s hard work).
And of course, the music: ever since she wrestled a serviceable Jeanette Burmeister out of me for GGFCT’s production of The Full Monty, I’ve had a soft spot in that echoing cavern where my heart used to be for Karen Braaten. The challenge for this show is that while the piano is located at the front of the stage (she’s literally taking a section of the first row), the rest of the band including Don Craig on clarinet, Mark Van Kamp on trumpet, and Alex Huether on percussion are all located backstage. Braaten kept everything running smoothly, and the music never overpowered the space, allowing the actors to show of their impressive talents. Even those who were clearly less sure in their vocalizations had found a way to incorporate their singing with the performance of their character, making the whole thing work.
There is one week left to see this fantastic little gem, but tickets sell notoriously fast so I would advise you to call soon. There has been a lot of buzz about this show, and deservedly so, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the attendance at this Sunday’s matinee was over 60 people (as someone who has done a Sunday matinée for fewer people than I have fingers with which to count them, I can tell you that this is always a treat for the cast and crew!). Shows are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 7:30 pm, and tickets can be purchased through the Chester Fritz box office or at the door (if still available). The show, with book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, was co-produced by Macy’s with additional support from Bremer Bank, First State Bank, Gate City Bank, and Bud & Ralph’s Appliance Service.
Tags: Amy Driscoll, Beatrice Stockwell, Bremer Bank, Bud and Ralph's Appliance Service, Casey Paradies, community theatre, Drowsy Chaperone, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, First State Bank, Frank Sikich, Gate City Bank, Grand Forks, Greater Grand Forks Community Theater, Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Karen Braaten, Louie Babcock, Macy's, Miss Jaye, Musical, Musical Theater, Musical Theatre, musicals, Robert Paul Simon, World of Champagne