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Review: Song and dance rule in Goodspeed's ‘Drowsy Chaperone’

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“The Drowsy Chaperone” isn’t as well-known a title as most others Goodspeed Musicals has presented at its Opera House (a friend of mine mistakenly referred to it as “The Drowsy Receptionist”). But this musical has the kind of pizzazz-filled production numbers that Goodspeed audiences deeply appreciate, and director Hunter Foster captures the madcap essence of it all.

Take us away: The raison d’etre of “The Drowsy Chaperone’ is sheer escapism, with a nod to nostalgia. As one of the characters says about musicals, “I just want a story, and a few good songs that will take me away. I just want to be entertained. I mean, isn't that the point?” “The Drowsy Chaperone” answers that question with an unequivocal yes.

Plot points: Since “Chaperone” doesn’t have a storyline that’s as familiar as, say, “Oliver!” (Goodspeed’s most recent show on the Opera House stage), we’ll give you a quick rundown. A man (whose character is only called Man in Chair) hides from the outside world but finds solace and happiness in listening to albums of old musicals. As he plays the recording of a fictional 1920s show titled “The Drowsy Chaperone,” the characters come to life, and he comments on the action, with sly asides about everything from genre conventions to the actors who played the roles. In the musical-within-the-musical, showgirl Janet Van deGraaf is giving up starring in the Feldzieg Follies to wed. Mr. Feldzieg himself, though, wants to convince her to stay with the production. Then, in one of the show’s winkingly and ridiculously farcical contrivances, Janet pretends she’s a French woman when chatting with her blindfolded fiancé. When he kisses her, thinking she’s the mademoiselle, Janet storms off, putting the wedding in jeopardy.

Colorful characters: Janet and beau Robert Martin are surrounded, naturally, by outlandish characters. There is the titular chaperone, a tipsy diva (played by Jennifer Allen); an egomaniacal, womanizing opera singer (John Rapson); two gangsters whose boss is an investor in the follies and want to ensure the show doesn’t lose its meal ticket in Janet; Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt), the bubble-brained companion of Mr. Feldzieg (James Judy); Mrs. Tottendale, the rich widow hosting the nuptials (Ruth Gottschall); her ever-patient butler (Jay Aubrey Jones); and an aviatrix (Danielle Lee Greaves) who pops up at the end of save the day.

Unassuming start: “The Drowsy Chaperone” had an unusual beginning: it was a musical spoof that some pals put together for the stag party before friends’ wedding in 1997. Viewers loved the original parody so much that it grew and expanded and, in 2007, ended up on Broadway. The names of the betrothed couple who spawned it all — Robert Martin and Janet Van de Graaf — are still used for the main characters. Martin, by the way, eventually joined in to co-write “The Drowsy Chaperone’s” book with Don McKellar, and the songs are by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison.

Dancing on air: The dialogue can be hit-and-miss; sometimes, it’s funny, and sometimes, it feels a bit too labored. What works spectacularly well all the time, though, are the song-and-dance sequences. The songs are peppy and mirthful. The dances with choreography by Chris Bailey are humdingers. A couple numbers worth special mention: In “Cold Feets,” Clyde Alves, portraying the groom, and Tim Falter, as his best man, take on a breath-challenging tap-dance extravaganza that’s athletic and fleet-footed and full of elation; if Gene Kelly were alive, he’d be jealous of the number and the performances. And in “Toledo Surprise,” most if not all cast members crowd the stage and transform it into a jumping jolt of jubilation.

The lovebirds: Stephanie Rothenberg exhibits real star power as the bubbly Janet. Her singing wows and would be a stand-out on any Broadway stage. Her best bit is “Show Off,” where Janet claims not to want to show off as a performer anymore and then does just that — twirling hula hoops on her arms, karate-chopping boards, and belting out the tune while swallowing a sword (well, that last one involves some stage magic). Rothenberg is hilarious as Janet can’t fight her own adoration of the spotlight. Alves’ Robert is a nice yin to Janet’s yang, a mix of leading man talent and goofy boyish charm. And, in a show that demands abilities few other musicals do, he roller skates while singing.

He’s the Man: While everyone else in the cast gets to dive into happily broad comic caricatures, John Scherer has to ground things as Man in Chair, and he does that quite well. His Man in Chair has a slightly nervous edge but melts at the thought of his favorite musical.

Twins win: Kudos to Foster for casting real brothers Blakely Slaybaugh and Parker Slaybaugh as the sibling gangsters, who are posing as pastry chefs. Their comic timing is impeccable, their unison on point, and their ability to mine each humorous line and physical movement is a highlight of the show. They even have fun with groan-inducing dessert-based puns like “You biscotti be kidding me” (for “You gotta be kidding me”).

Dressed to the nines: A show like “The Drowsy Chaperone” lets the costume designer go to town, and Gregg Barnes does that, gloriously. Fringe-happy flapper-esque dress for Mrs. Tottendale? Check. Old-school golf-style knickers, funky socks, ankle boots and aprons for the gangsters/chefs? Yup. Female characters shimmering in sparkles and sequins and draped in faux fur and velvet? Indeed.

Ready, set …: Scenic designer Howard Jones gets to dream up a variety of locations here. He establishes Man in Chair’s rundown apartment and then gussies things up as the action moves to bridal suites and other fancy sites. Most entertaining of all: the monkey sculpture. You’ll have to see the show to truly appreciate the reason for and the creation of that bit of insanity.

If you go

What: "The Drowsy Chaperone"

Where: Goodspeed Opera House, 6 Main St., East Haddam

When: Through Nov. 25; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri., 3 and 8 p.m. Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; also 2 p.m. on select Thursdays and 6:30 p.m. select Sundays

Tickets: Start at $29

Contact: (860) 873-8668, goodspeed.org

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