Review By Teresa Gasparini
County Players closes out its 61st season with The Drowsy Chaperone
Musical theater takes its share of jabs – “No one just bursts out into song like that!” Fans would agree that it is “unrealistic,” but they know that to be the point. All theater is an escape no matter how closely it seeks to portray reality; musical theater makes no pretense of the matter. The point is precisely to let the glitz and glam of the costumes, lights, song, and dance transport the audience out of “real life.” If that is indeed the point, then County Players’ 61st season’s grand finale production of The Drowsy Chaperone is right on target.
As the lights go down and the audience awaits the signature start of an overture with the crash of cymbals or the blasts of brass, we sit in the darkness for several quiet moments. The overture does not come. Just when one begins to question whether something went wrong, out of the darkness comes the hesitant yet passionate voice of Man in Chair. The opening monologue is a delight, tapping the thoughts of many a dubious theater-goer: “Oh, please let this be good … I can handle two hours, but please not a three-hour show … And for the love of God, please don’t have the actors come into the audience!” It sets the stage for the entertaining commentary throughout the show that we hear from Man in Chair as though he himself is an audience member sitting next to us, breaking the fourth wall.
Man in Chair introduces us to the fictitious 1928 musical The Drowsy Chaperone while he sits in his simple apartment adorned with show posters. It is not hard to guess Man in Chair lives the life of a recluse, finding comfort within his four walls, and in the worlds created by his records. As he sets the needle down on the show recording, the musical comes to life in his apartment, with elegant décor such as lush draperies, a glowing chandelier, and elaborate floral arrangements, followed by the eclectic cast of The Drowsy Chaperone. A betrothed couple tailed by the best man, an elderly hostess with her faithful butler, a show business producer and a brash “put me in the show!” chorus girl, two gangsters posing as pastry chefs, an overrated actor, and of course the infamous drowsy chaperone mix together to transport us back to the 1920s when musicals were carefree, lighthearted and always end in a wedding… or two… or three … or four!
Dylan Parkin captivatingly plays Man in Chair – a deceptively simple character name for the pivotal character of the show. Parkin easily engages the audience as he narrates this story safely from the confines of his chair until he can no longer be a bystander and gets in on the act himself. He acts as a perfect tour guide on this journey through the chronicle of The Drowsy Chaperone as a musical theatre lover with a heavy heart. It’s fitting that his character is nameless because Parkin makes Man in Chair so relatable that anyone in the audience can identify with him, thus placing themselves in the chair.
Janet Van de Graaf is skillfully played by Amy Schaefer, whose voice is as stunning as her performance. Of particular note is her rendition of “Show Off” which is complete with quick changes, comedic talents, a big belt at the end, followed by an encore of the song. This was accomplished with such finesse and style that Ms. Schaefer is welcome to “show off” anytime.
Glen Macken as Adolpho is a highlight of the show, and his catch phrase of “Whaaaaat?” is one of those take-away lines you say on the car ride home. His comedic timing, line delivery, and character development are instinctual skills. He plays this character with an unabashed joy which makes his every entrance amusing.
In the title character, Michele George shines as The Drowsy Chaperone. She is brassy, brazen, perpetually a bit tipsy, and everything you want out of a 1920’s diva. George owned every line, costume, and step of her character. Her performance of “As We Stumble Along” would have one wondering if the song was perhaps written specifically for her because she owned that as well.
The entertaining duo of The Gangsters played by Michael Frohnhoefer and Emily Woolever were an audience favorite. They played off each other perfectly often creating fits of hysterical laughter. Woolever’s ability to transform into different characters is remarkable; Frohnhoefer is at absolute play in this character, and together they steal every scene they are in. With their performances, a musical based solely on The Gangsters would be a box office hit.
It is wonderfully notable that County Players so often features performers making their debut with the company, and The Drowsy Chaperone is no exception. Matthew Fields playing Robert and Kevin Wadzuk playing George, are a great pair as the groom and best man respectively. Their tap dance number “Cold Feet” has an appeal that makes it impossible to watch without an ear-to-ear smile. Also making her debut is Eliana Russotti as Trix the Aviatrix whose dynamite voice makes one hopeful we will see her time and time again on stage. No stranger to the stage, but a first timer with County Players, is the lovable Frank Petruccelli. He pulls double duty as the Superintendent and several roles in the ensemble and is a wonderful addition to the company.
Michael A. Boden as the stressed Broadway producer Feldzieg (get it?) and Lora Rinaldi as Kitty, provide a lot of laughs along with some wonderful production numbers filled with bounce and vitality. Stephanie Hepburn as Mrs. Tottendale and Thomas G. Byrne as her faithful butler, Underling are enjoyable with their hot and cold relationship filled with humor and eventually love.
A production like this is only as strong as the ensemble. Rounding out the cast with energy and effervescence is Connie E. Boden, Alexis Morgan, Laura Seaman, and Lance Turner.
Kudos to the crew, both backstage and production. Jen Mille as Stage Manager, assisted by Audra Siegel, runs a bustling backstage with many scene changes, and certainly several quick costume changes. Another nod to Jen Mille and her clever set design that kept the pace of the show moving with seamless transitions. Not to give anything away here, but the use and design of the bed was one of genius! The design of the show across the board should be commended with special note being made to Kevin Barnes on lights and Mark Weglinski’s sound. Karen Ustick Eremin and Rosemeary Evaul’s costume design was as alive and vibrant as the 1920s itself.
Matthew Woolever is making a mark on the Hudson Valley theatre scene as a well- seasoned musical director. It is quipped in the show that overtures are “musical appetizers”, and with Woolever and the 12-piece orchestra giving the audience a taste of the bright, upbeat 1920s score right from the beginning, we find ourselves extremely full and satisfied by the show’s end.
Nothing beats a great production number, and nothing completes it like a great dance break. Denise Wornell makes a triumphant return to County Players as the production’s choreographer. Wornell should be applauded for her choreography that catered to the different dance skill sets among the cast. Routines were delightfully done in 1920s jazz/flapper era reminding us all how we wanted to be alive and part of that roaring time in history.
Jeff Wilson has directed a quintessential community theatre production with all the elements to make this possibly one of County Players’ best. Wilson skillfully assembled a score of highly talented individuals to make up his cast, orchestra, stage crew, and production team. His vision played out beautifully on stage. Wilson’s greatest accomplishment may very well have been to let his cast have fun. The Drowsy Chaperone is the type of show that cries out “Have fun!”, and once all the work is put in with lines, choreography, music, then it is time for the fun and too often that’s forgotten about. Not in this case! The cast so clearly enjoyed the show and each other that it seeped out into the audience, making this a real winner for Wilson.
Sure, we can agree that elements of musical theatre are unrealistic, since generally we don’t break into song and dance when emotion elevates in our lives. But, to permit yourself to suspend reality for two hours allowing a show to take you to another world, seeing how the characters will sing their way out of a situation, or just merely tapping your foot along to a show stopping number without the distraction of cell phones, emails or other interruptions of life, truly makes up the glory of musical theatre. Do yourself a favor and leave the real world behind for a bit to immerse yourself in this “musical within a comedy” expertly presented by County Players.
The Drowsy Chaperone plays through May 19th and tickets can be reserved by calling the box office at 845.298.1491 or online at countyplayers.org
Teresa Gasparini is a local director, actor and is a co-founder of Hudson Valley Ovation. She serves as the Artistic Director for Clove Creek Dinner Theater in Fishkill, NY and as Executive Director for The New Deal Creative Arts Center located in Hyde Park, NY.