Newport Theatre Arts Center’s Production of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ is a Compact Comedic Salute to Classic Musical Theater

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Scene from “The Drowsy Chaperone. Photo credit to Matt Bobke.

By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy

Billed as “a musical within a comedy,” “The Drowsy Chaperone” has been around long enough to have developed something of a cult following. Its reputation is well deserved as a compact, comedic show that both parodies and salutes the musical theater of the 1920s.

Originating in Toronto in 1998, the show has played worldwide. Now it’s Newport Theatre Arts Center’s turn to offer this valentine to Golden Age musical theater.

The brilliance of the show, conceived by Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison and Don McKellar, is in its concept: A solitary devotee of musical theater shuts out the unpleasantries of contemporary life by bolting the door of his New York City apartment and playing LP recordings on a vintage gramophone.

Whenever feeling low, the character, known only to us as “Man in Chair,” dusts off his exceedingly rare two-disc recording of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” an obscure Broadway musical from 1928.

As the show begins, Man in Chair (Christopher Spencer) shares with us the philosophy that drives his actions: “I just want a good story and a few good songs. I just want to be entertained. Isn’t that the point?”

And thus, through his starting and stopping the album, and imagining and envisioning the show’s cast members, we get pretty much that entire show, framed by the main character’s thoughts, feelings and impressions of his all-time favorite musical.

Scene from “The Drowsy Chaperone. Photo credit to Matt Bobke.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” wouldn’t work, of course, unless the fictional musical at its core weren’t viable. A compendium of ’20s elements, McKellar and Bob Martin’s book draws inspiration from dozens of real-life Jazz Age musicals. It’s Lambert and Morrison’s music and lyrics, though, that really set the tone.

They’ve crafted only 11 songs (plus an overture), but this score has an authentic ’20s sound that’s reflected at NTAC by the look and feel of the musical numbers.

What’s also readily apparent about the show is the stark contrast between the real world inhabited by Man in Chair (and, by extension, us) and the songs, story and characters of the vintage musical he so loves. Spencer’s Man in Chair does all he can to block out the world, fuming at every interruption, each of which “ruins” the delicate experience of enjoying the show.

The writers have purposely made the characters of the show-within-the-show stock, one-dimensional figures with exaggerated personality traits and overreactions to the twists and turns of the creaky plot.

“Drowsy” – the show we see and the make-believe show it depicts – is a frivolous yet delicious slice of Broadway musical cake. Director Holly Jones’s cast of 22 sparkles from the leads and supporting cast members to an exceptional chorus, delivering a sweet, heartwarming show wherein each performer clearly revels in the comedically over-the-top nature of the fictional jazz-era musical they perform.

Christopher Spencer in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Photo credit to Matt Bobke.

By the same token, Spencer throws himself into the role of someone who lives vicariously through not just the obscure show he adores but stops the action here and there to relate the back-story of every Broadway personality (all fictional) who starred in the original “Drowsy Chaperone.”

The exuberant, bubbly opening number (“Fancy Dress”) introduces us to all of the key characters of the fictional stage musical, all of whom are purposely one-dimensional.

The titles of both shows – the one we’re seeing and the one the play is about – are defined when, early on, the chaperone (Shannyn Page) of the bride-to-be proclaims “champagne makes me drowsy!”

Near the top of the evening, both bride Janet (Jennifer Harmon) and groom Bob (Alberto Hernandez) are spotlighted. Hernandez is featured, first solo and then with Alexander Shearer as best man George, in “Cold Feets,” an exciting vintage tap number. Their scene is followed by “Show Off,” starring Harmon and featuring the company in just one of the show’s quintessentially ’20s musical numbers.

Harmon and Hernandez are paired in the endearing “Accident Waiting to Happen,” as the blindfolded Bob roller-skates around Janet, who invents the persona of French girl “Mimi.”

Every character in the show Man in Chair adores is appealingly simple, reflecting this devoted observer’s nostalgia for the simpler times of Broadway’s Golden Age.

Hernandez aptly portrays Bob as endearingly narcissistic. Then we meet stereotypical Latin lover Aldolpho, whose ridiculously funny self-love is given comedic exaggeration by Kyle Myers.

Christopher Spencer in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Photo credit to Matt Bobke.

Dalton Nguyen and Sean Farrell comically menace as mobsters disguised as pastry chefs, and Mark Wickham enjoyably underplays the role of Underling, the stereotypically British servant.

Director Jones, musical director Kyra Cohen and choreographer Maureen Russell pull together the show’s spoken, musical and dance elements, keeping us floating along with the characters.

Through the dozens of photos, playbills and posters on the walls of Man in Chair’s home, the design team of Jim Huffman, Joshua Serrano, Michael Corcoran and Leslye Wanthal delivers a virtual shrine to musical theater, and Jenny Wentworth’s costumes and Kat Scott’s wigs re-create the look of a full-blown late ’20s musical.

In Newport Beach, though, it really all comes down to Spencer, a superb actor who has graced countless Orange County stages for many years.

Man in Chair is a vulnerable focal figure who gradually opens himself up to us and who exults in and is mesmerized by each successive musical number, and Spencer superbly embodies his character’s preference to immerse himself in the world of theater versus contending with life.

The actor expertly gradates the intensity levels of Man in Chair, which satisfyingly offsets the frivolity of the show within this show.

As such, isn’t Man in Chair just a bit like any of us who love great musical theater? “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a fantasy framed by reality that proves, at NTAC and elsewhere, that we can have both.

Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach. Through April 14. Running time: One hour, 45 minutes (no intermission). 7:30 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Tickets: $30. Ticket purchase / information: 949-631-0288, www.ntaconline.com.

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