If anyone thinks we have to go to Broadway to see the best of musical theatre, I would suggest you hurry over to Masquerade Theatre during the current run of a splendid, “Drowsy Chaperone.” It features one of the most perfectly staged musical numbers I have ever seen anywhere, including on Broadway, where several years ago I enjoyed the original production, — but not quite as much as this one. Masquerade Founder/Director, Phillip Duggins, has another winner on his hands.
The clever plot revolves about a flamboyant fellow called simply The Man in the Chair (Luther Chakurian in a smooth and subtle performance that I found more delightful than the Broadway original). Comfortably seated in the dark of his little apartment, our narrator likes nothing better than lifting his mood by playing the LP recordings he has collected of Broadway musicals, with his favorite being— you guessed it— The Drowsy Chaperone. He begins to address the audience explaining his passion for musicals, and then begins to share his joy by playing the record. As he does so, the show begins to come to life on stage. It was a unique theatrical device and one of the elements that led to numerous Tony Awards for the show in 2006.
We are transported to the 1920’s estate (set design, Amanda McBee) of dowager granddame, Mrs. Tottendale (Rebekah Dahl). She is to host the marriage of popular starlet, Janet Van De Graaff (Laura Gray) to oil fortune heir apparent, Robert Martin (Michael J. Ross). Following a pleasant Overture, the full company works its way gaily on stage during the flashy opening number, “Fancy Dress,” that displays the many fine period costume designs of Libby Evans. We meet Janet’s Broadway impresario, Mr. Feldzieg (Evan Tessier), Robert’s Best Man, George (Adam W. Delka who doubles as the show’s musical director), a couple of shady gangsters (Brad Scarborough & Kendrick Mitchell), an often-exasperated butler named Underling (Eric Edwards), a flighty chorus girl named Kitty (Libby Evans), a Latin lover named Adolpho (Luke Wrobel), and of course, the Drowsy Chaperone herself. (Kristina Sullivan looking so Roaring ’20’s chic in an elegant gown that seemed made of mink velvet). Janet wants to leave her lucrative career for marriage, home and family, but Feldzieg is under pressure from the mobsters to keep Janet from leaving show business. Feldzieg hires Adolpho to seduce Janet and prevent the marriage, but he makes love to the Chaperone instead. Meanwhile Janet begins to doubt Robert’s love for her. Get your scorecards out to keep up with the fun.
Robert, George and Underling delight the audience with the prancing tap-dancing joy of “Cold Feets.” (Choreographer Michelle Macicek) But the highlight of the show for this critic comes when Janet holds a press conference to alert the media that she is retiring from Show Biz. In a dazzling tour de force performance with every element of comedy, poise, grace and total command, Miss Gray explodes on stage for “Show Off.” As Janet sings repeatedly, “I don’t want to show off no more,” she does exactly that with every imaginable acrobatic dance move one could hope for. Gray, a frequent choreographer at Masquerade, is vocally brilliant in this number, and the company joins her to make this one of the most memorable Masquerade moments on record. In a word it was sheer perfection. The audience went appropriately wild even before the hilarious and much-deserved encore that followed.
Fun continues with the always-drinking Chaperone singing the joyous, “As We Stumble Along,” with such amusing lyrics as “keep your eyeball on the highball in your hand.” Miss Sullivan brings classy sophistication to her characterization, and I found myself thinking she would make a fine “Mame,” should Masquerade make my dream come true by mounting that show. Then we have the riotous slapstick of talented Mr. Wrobel singing (operatically at times) his own praises as a lover in the tango-flavored, “Adolpho,” accented by rosy lighting from designer, David Gipson. Ross and Gray duet sweetly for “I’m an Accident Waiting to Happen,” and the full company takes off in a Charleston-style blockbuster featuring more great dancing and some colorfully sassy flapper dresses. A great trick follows when our narrator explains he would begin playing the Act Two recording. The scene opens with the oriental flair of a “Message From a Nightingale,” but the number seems immediately out of place even though it features the familiar faces of actors who had played Kitty, Adolpho, The Chaperone and the Gangsters in the first act of “Drowsy.” It turns out the scene is in fact out of place since our narrator had accidentally placed the wrong show album on the phonograph. Back to the real show, Janet leads a lashing, “Bride’s Lament.” Then Dahl’s Mrs. Tottendale, dressed in what looked like a layered wedding cake ball gown, seemed like some robotically whirling, curly-haired doll on a music box as she joined the droll Mr. Edwards for their sweet duet of “Love is Always Lovely.”
Readers may have guessed that I found little to complain about here, but I would suggest the ending, while satisfying, is a bit fuzzy. I wish we could somehow have had one more encore of “Show Off.” Now that’s Broadway!
Final performances of “The Drowsy Chaperone” at Zilkah Hall in Houston’s Hobby Center will be Friday and Saturday November 26th-27th at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and information call the box office at 713-TMT-9696 or visit the website at www.MasqueradeTheatre.org