Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"La Cage aux Folles"

La Cage aux Folles
Harvey Fierstein (Book); Jerry Herman (Music & Lyrics)


The tempo of the overture’s tunes — familiar in music and long-memorized in words for many in the audience — quickens in direct proportion to the packed theatre’s palpable rise in energy level and anticipation.  In a tease to an audience who to a person already knows where they are, the MC commands with glee, “Open your eyes, you have arrived at La Cage aux Folles.”  And then the real magic begins, first in a mere whisper, next slowing building into a triumphant, emphatic, sung declaration:  “We are what we are, and what we are is an illusion.”  

In bold, skimpy outfits of various black leathers, three queens of stage before us continue, 
“We are what we are -
Half a brassiere, half a suspender. 
Half real and half fluff,
You'll find it tough guessing our gender.”

They are soon joined by tap-dancing sailorettes coming up two aisles, all singing and dancing with such fabulous exuberance that already the nightclub-size arena of the San Francisco Playhouse is about to explode in celebration.  When the entire troupe bows low as part of a grand kick line, ‘guessing the gender’ becomes easier via the low necklines revealing those ‘queens’ whose breasts are not just stuffing.  And so begins Harvey Fierstein’s (book) and Jerry Herman’s (music and lyrics) La Cage aux Folles in a production that once again is to prove that San Francisco Playhouse knows how to stage summertime musicals that soar in their excellence, ingenuity, and downright fun.

The household of Georges the dad, Albin the ‘mom,’ and Jean-Michel the son is as normal and every day as any in St. Tropez, France.  After all, what is that unusual about two gay men (one a drag club owner/MC and the other the show’s drag star, Zaza) raising their son to now his handsome, young-twenties manhood?  So what is the big deal if their household is actually controlled by a short-skirted, hip-swishing butler named Jacob who prefers being referred to as “the maid”?  But when Jean-Michel arrives home with the news that he is getting married to a woman (oh my) and that her father is head of the "Tradition, Family and Morality Party" (whose stated goal is to close the local drag clubs), all hell breaks loose.  That is especially the case when Albin hears he is being replaced by the boy’s real mother (a long-ago, one-night fling of Georges who never bothers to contact her son) at a dinner party where the two sets of parents are to meet.   Albin a.k.a. Zaza is not about to go back into the closet and hide from the bigots about to become the new in-laws.  What ensues makes those wacky plots and ploys of 1950s TV sitcoms like “I Love Lucy” seem tame.

The sparkling brilliance of Broadway veteran John Treacy Egan as Albin becomes immediately clear as he transforms before our eyes into the red-lipped, big-bosomed Zaza with inch-long (at least) eyelashes while singing in increasingly excited breaths, “A Little More Mascara.”  Mr. Egan’s many comedic abilities come alive in the scores of ways he uses every facial muscle, every head and hair flip, and every body twist and turn to express surprise, scorn, spite, or whatever emotion Albin feels more than ready to express.  When in white wig and shimmering gown he leads the club’s equally decked-out queens in “La Cage aux Folles,” the dancers reign supreme in high kicks, stunning splits, and stage-conquering cartwheels (all magnificently choreographed by Kimberly Richards) while Zaza channels Carol Channing, Carol Burnett, and even Bea Arthur as Zaza belts supreme with much humor, pomp, and full voice.  Then when delivering the musical’s well-known (and primo gay anthem worldwide) “I Am What I Am,” Mr. Egan reaches even deeper to let loose an Act One finale that brings tears and cheers galore.

As Georges, Ryan Drummond has plenty of his own moments to leave memorable impressions during the course of the story’s wild and sometimes wacky telling.  Along with his own down-played humor, he ensures there are romantic scenes that rival any of those on the big screens of the ‘30s and ‘40s — both when he sings solo in smooth and debonair richness “Song on the Sand” and when he is joined by Albin in a reprise of that song and in “With You on My Arm.”  The eye-to-eye looks of love the two are want to give (when they are not heavy into another cat fight) speak of a mutual adoration to be envied by any set of spousal lovers, gay or straight — except maybe the religious-right parents of Jean-Michel’s fiancé.                       

 When we first meet Jean-Michel, Nikita Burshteyn brings a personality and voice both fantastically likable to the young man now so in love that he sings with starry eyes and beaming smile, “With Anne on My Arm.”  Jean-Michel takes a turn to the darker side as he puts impressing his future in-laws ahead of those who have burped him, fed him, and helped him with his homework.  Mr. Burshteyn credibly portrays Jean-Michel’s flips of character as well as the prodigal’s eventual return to  what is really important for his and his intended’s future (Anne, played by Samantha Rose).

While he does not have a song to song in solo in order to show off his vocals, Brian Yates Sharber finds plenty of opportunities to come very close to stealing the entire show as the purposefully nelly Jacob.  This ‘maid’ is no mere servant but is clearly the one usually in full control of the household.  The looks Jacob gives and the moves he makes communicate clearly his exact opinions and judgments, even when nothing comes out of his mouth beyond a turn-of-the-head ‘humph.’

The caricature of the straight-and-narrow, bigoted politician, Edouard Dindon, that Christopher Reber so wonderfully creates is in fact so realistic to be scary when compared to some present-day politicians.  As his wife Marie, Adrienne Herro has her own chances to be overly pompous and pious; but she becomes much more interesting as both character and actress when Marie breaks out of norm to let her hair down, don a gown worthy of any drag queen, and find salvation somewhere other than via her husband’s narrow-strait route.

Bill English takes full advantage of the SF Playhouse’s medium-size theatre in order to create an intimacy and immediacy missing from former, big-house productions of La Cage.  There are singular moments where the live show takes on the feel of the movies of old where the camera zeroes in for posed close-ups as everything freezes just a second for full effect and notice.  The director also ensures that not a minute passes without our being fully entertained, including when a couple seconds of riotous risqué occur each time one of Jacquelyn Scott’s spectacular sets rotates around to the next.  

A show like this would go nowhere if the multitudinous, appearance changes that the drag queens make were not all over-the-top in every respect.  Abra Berman’s costumes, Laura Tyme’s wigs, and Creme Fatale’s make-up guarantee that these queens are given full royal treatment for both their and our total enjoyment.  

A particularly delicious aspect of this production is the way individual instruments under Dave Dubrusky’s musical direction often interact with and echo the actors dialogue and/or the action on stage.  As an ensemble, the six pieces also fill the air with the full ebullience of Jerry Herman’s score, never under-or-over playing as numbers are rendered by the singers and full ensemble.

San Francisco Playhouse has taken the Broadway, multi-Tony-winning hit,  La Cage aux Folles — one more accustomed to the big stage on a big budget — and shaped the musical into a new but familiar enough version that shines and soars on its medium-size stage.  The result is a belly-laughing, eye-popping, and heart-warming production replete with the voices and dance moves sure to impress.

Rating: 5 E

La Cage aux Folles continues through September 116, 2017 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli.


                                                                                                                                             






Monday, July 17, 2017

"The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga"


The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga
Min Kahng (Book, Music & Lyrics)
Based on Manga Yonin Shosei by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

The Cast of The Four Immigrants
The story of immigrants arriving on the shores of the Golden State is told with songs that often sound as all-American as “Yankee Doodle” – songs with notes of jazz, ragtime, country-western, and even Sousa-like march beats.  And the many songs of this new musical are actually hummable, remaining upon leaving as fun earworms (something often not true in today’s new musicals).  Add to all these elements a cast that is to a person phenomenally stellar and a director (Leslie Martinson) who orchestrates the story’s telling with daring deftness, an open heart, and a penchant for allowing much wit even against dire adversity.  The resulting prediction is that Min Kahng’s (book, music, lyrics) new musical, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga, appears destined to be another widely recognized success in a long-line of over sixty world premieres as TheatreWorks Silicon Valley opens its 48th season.

For my full review, please click to Talkin' Broadway:  http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj93.html

Rating: 5 E

The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga continues in world premiere through August 6, 2017 by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets are available at http://www.theatreworks.org/.

Photo by Kevin Berne
 


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

"Summary of 2017 Theatre Eddys at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland"


Summary of 2017 Theatre Eddys at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland

The following is my final rank-order of the ten plays I saw this year in Ashland at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  I was lucky enough to see all but one of the 2017 season’s offerings.

The list starts with what I consider the best show of the year, that one being among many good ones.  I include the “E” ratings given each and a link to my review.


2nd.  Shakespeare in Love, 5 E

3rd.  Henry IV, Part One, 5 E

4th. JuliusCaesar, 5 E


6th.  UniSon, 4 E


8th.  Merry Wives of Windsor, 3.5 E

9th.  Henry IV, Part Two, 3.5 E

10th The Odyssey, 2.5 E

In addition, I saw and reviewed The Drowsy Chaperone at Oregon Cabaret Theatre, rated ‘5 E’.  If placing in the above listing, it would be 5.5.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

"Hannah and the Dread Gazebo": Day 9, Play 11, Theatre Eddys at OSF Ashland 2017

Hannah and the Dread Gazebo
Jiehae Park


“This is a story about a wish.”  But does this story really have a beginning, a middle, and an end?  Should it?  Must it?  Or is this a story where we simply accept and enjoy that there is something about a stone in a bottle, about a tiger and a bear, about magpies and garlic, and about a family searching for a grandmother who jumps wearing a big smile off the top floor of her retirement high rise into the mine-ridden DMZ separating the Koreas?  If we as audience can suspend our disbelief and live for a while in a zone that is neither here nor there, neither totally reality nor totally fantasy, and neither 100% Korean nor 100% American, then there is much to be absorbed, relished, and learned in experiencing the world premiere of Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo at the 2017 Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Maybe the story begins in New York City when a FedEx box addressed to Hannah drops from the sky (literally) with a note from her Korean grandmother saying she is about to commit suicide and with a smooth, white stone in a tiny bottle — a note saying that the stone is “a wish.”  Hannah, who is only two weeks from taking her boards to become a pediatric neurologist, rushes to Seoul where her brother has already arrived at their parents’ apartment.  To say that the family has some issues in communicating at any level genuine, even in this time of crisis, is an understatement.   Because of increased tensions between the two Koreas, recovering any information — much less a body — of the grandmother is impossible, leaving the family in a kind of purgatory and in their own version of a family demilitarized zone.  

In their own ways, each sets out to figure out how to “keep going,” how to do more than “just sit here.”  A mother orders a much-desired gazebo from amishgazebos.com, even though she and her husband live in an apartment.  A son rides the city’s trains as far as they can go and encounters a man in a trench coat lined with garlic and with a story about the beginning of time.  The father frantically rides his bicycle through the crowded Seoul streets, searching how he can to help his wife and the state of coma she suddenly finds herself in.  And a daughter takes the little stone to the top of the residential tower where her grandmother allegedly jumped, trying to discover what the wish is all about and why it came to her.  Each is trying to understand the story of their individual and collective lives as immigrants and as the next generation who are no longer immigrants.  Each is learning how to ask the right questions and/or to share sought answers so that all have the shared information needed to continue their own and their family’s stories.

And all along the way, what seems so serious begins to appear at least a little bit funny.  Certainly as an audience, we cannot help chuckling or downright laughing even as topics like suicide, coma, relationship break-up, or disconnect with one’s heritage and ancestry are the points of focus.  The power of Jiehae Park’s script and of this initial production’s magical direction by Clay Yew is that we as an audience get comfortable existing ourselves somewhere between serious and light-hearted, between needing to understand and just letting it happen, and between a period and an ellipsis at the end of the sentence.

The strong ensemble assembled to tell this story of sorts does so through individually defined manners, paces, and paths that sometimes converge but often occur in spaces apart from the others.  The fantastically designed lighting of David Weimer sets apart individuals on their quests to complete their version of the story and adds elements of mystery, fantasy, and surprise in the telling.  The scenic design of Collette Pollard begins so simply in high, simple style but opens up over time to reveal another world sensational and mystifying, beautiful and captivating.  Sara Ryun Clement’s costumes help define the personality of each character while also adding elements of humor and fantasy in just the right places.

Cindy Inn as Hannah, our narrator, is ever the serious doctor-to-be who approaches her job to discover what happened to her grandmother and why in a methodical manner … that is until she begins to open up to some possibilities that cannot be explained in facts and direct experience.  Her twenty-something brother, Dang (Sean Jones) is as American as they come in his generous use of the vernacular; in his torn, tight jeans; and in his feeling totally foreign and uneasy in a land where everyone looks exactly like he.  Mr. Jones’ Dang transforms in ways and for reasons wonderful to watch — partly due to a socially inept but magnetically attractive girl (Eunice Hong) whose non-stop sentences full of intellect and activism catch him off-guard and wake him up to something new in himself.

Paul Juhn is a smiling Father usually of few words beyond the predictable phrases his kids are used to hearing but one who can also explode unpredictably as his anxiety grows of not understanding what is happening and why to his distraught wife who has lost her mother.  He too begins to discover his own route to feeling more in control of the story developing around him and what he can do perhaps to help his dear wife’s state of deep grief.  

As the mother, Any Kim Waschke portrays with great skill and sensitivity the most complex of the core family’s characters.  Her transformation is entrancing to behold as she goes from almost a walking corpse in the beginning to a woman who finally understands the story she should share with her daughter, the next generation of the women in her family.  

Jessica Ko takes on many quirky, funny, and colorful characters — both those of  actuality and those of dreams and tales.  Her quick changes of persona, looks, voice, sex, and even species are much of the joy of this part-real, part-fable play. 
Ms. Ko’s ongoing appearances as Grandmother are a needed thread to remind us that this story does have a beginning in search of some ending.  That ending does come after only ninety minutes of Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo and leaves a lot of room for more new beginnings for each of the four members of this family of first-and-second generation, Korean immigrants.

Rating: 4 E

Photo by Jenny Graham









"Henry IV, Parts One and Two": Day 8, Plays 9 & 10, OSF Ashland 2017

Henry IV: Parts One and Two
William Shakespeare


Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season offers the rare opportunity to see what one might call William Shakespeare’s ‘Falstaff Triad.’  Along with The Merry Wives of Windsor, the third in the so-called Falstaff sequence, Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two document parallel journeys of the rotund and rowdy rascal, Sir John Falstaff, and his unlikely, sometime pal — the errant Crown Prince Hal, he being too well known for his espièglerie and escapes into the backstreet bars of London.  As Falstaff’s sun moves toward its setting due to age and a life of drinking and small-time thievery, Hal’s sun is on a slow but sure rise in the course of the three plays.  The contrast becomes one of the striking, underlying themes of the three plays as history marches uneasily forward even as the two friends revel the nights away over much drunk sack.  

Hal’s father and king, Henry IV, faces threats to the crown he acquired through murder (documented in Shakespeare’s Richard II).  Those stormy clouds finally provide the impetus for Prince Hal to begin his own prodigal journey toward the someday Crown.    With casts, scenic backdrops, and other production elements that largely overlap, Oregon Shakespeare Festival presents Henry IV, Parts One and Two, even offering opportunities to see the entire sequence in one day.  Doing so opens the possibility in just a few hours to steep oneself in intriguing, troubling, but ultimately inspiring English history while also finding much humor and hubris in the rabbles and rouses of one Sir John and his questionable band of followers.

So fat of body that walking is often a miracle unto itself (especially when considering his ongoing consumption of fortified wine or brandy), G. Valmont Thomas is a Sir John Falstaff to be thoroughly enjoyed and surely long-remembered.  When we first see him in Part One, his pink suit and gaudily flowered shirt are the first signs that his over-sized body is indicative of his over-sized personality and ego as well as an inflated appetite for a life of constant leisure, mild lechery, and full-on laughter (those yeehaws as much at the expense of others as possible).   During the course of the two plays, Sir John will reluctantly take to the fields of chivalry, doing all he can to avoid any serious fighting but making sure to claim heroic victories.  He will be the brunt of much teasing and trickery by Hal and his friend, Poins, but will invariably find ways to make it look as if he were all along in full knowledge and control of the ruses.  Mr. Thomas uses to incredible effects his own large, round eyes with whites that shine bright against the dark sea of his big smiling face.  His Falstaff has a wardrobe full of facial masks that he naturally creates and wears to give the ol’ geezer a warehouse of expressions that detail his unwelcome journey over the course of the two plays of aging and of having and losing Hal’s favor.

Prince Hal himself undergoes major transformation during the course of Parts One and Two, and Daniel José Molina is magnificent in a role that stretches the ranges of Hal’s maturity and manners to great widths.  In Part One, we meet a Hal that is every parent’s worst nightmare —- sullen and smirky, blasé and bored when with his father while wildly raucous, carelessly abandoned, and quick to temper and trickery when with his friends.  Here is a Hal in open jacket baring a chest of tattoos ready to join his friends in a booze-filled foam-party at a local club where women of the night are his easy companions as are guys who are more comfortable  mugging for money than earning an honest living.  This is the unlikely next king of England, but one who at the height of his revelry begins to realize that there is an end coming to his ribaldry:
“So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am.
… My reformation, glitt'ring o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.”

When Hal’s turning point does come due to the mounting threats to his father’s (and ultimately, to his own) crown, the metamorphosis in the countenance, stance, and even voice of Mr. Molina are palpable as he looks for the first time squarely into his father’s eyes (versus the normal shrugging and diverting) and declares, 
“I will redeem all this on Percy’s head,
And, in the closing of some glorious day,
Be bold to tell you that I am your son …”

Those changes continue as he takes to the battlefield of Part One; and even though there is some retreat to Falstaff and friends in Part Two, it is clear that the old Hal is fading away.  The Hal of Part Two has moments of the old ribald Hal; but in his eyes, there is a growing reserve and a knowledge that both his father’s days on earth and his own days as a young man hanging on to the manners of a teen are now numbered.

The contrast Shakespeare makes between Hal and Harry Hotspur — a valiant warrior who is a leader among those rebelling against Henry IV’s deemed illegitimate rule  in Part One — is played out wonderfully by Mr. Molina’s Hal and the Hotspur we meet, as played in this production by a woman, Alejandra Escalante.  While Hal is unpredictable and wild in the bars, once he approaches confrontation on the battlefield, he is level-headed, strong-willed, and increasingly valiant.  From the moment we meet her, Hotspur is quick-tempered, hot-headed, and extremely impatient of others.  She is full of nervous energy in her constant pacing and quickly rises in voice when challenged by others.  But her courage and her own valor is never in question by those around her, including by Hal himself.  Ms. Escalante is a Hotspur believable and one that earns our respect and our sympathy, even as we are cheering for Hal to defeat her in their destined confrontation.  (In Part Two, Ms. Escalante takes on a variety of roles often of the lower class and continues to excel in the convincing persona that she creates.)

In both parts of Henry IV, Jeffrey King as the title character embodies the question Shakespeare raises about what does it mean to be the legitimate ruler.   In his constant looks of agony and pain and his reluctance to put the crown on his head (often holding it to his side instead), this King shows the inner battle — mostly unspoken but always clearly conveyed — he as ruler wages.  He faces threats of those rising against him, and he questions almost until his death if his crown prince is worthy of succession.  However, it is his own past path to ascension that plows deeper in concern as can be seen in the increasing wrinkles of his brow and the slumping of his worn-out body and soul.  In battle this King Henry IV is outwardly strong and mighty; but in the quiet of his bedroom or near his throne, there is a loneliness and a cloud of doubt that is seen in every part of the actor’s magnificent rendering of the King.

In two plays of such historically epic dimensions that also dip into the bellies of society to wallow in forbidden fun, there are too many wonderful performances to note in a too-short review of highlights; but a few more must be detailed.  Chief among these is Michele Mais as the mammoth-bosomed, big-hearted hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern, Mistress Quickly.  Saucy, snappy and full of shrieks and shrills that are as sharp as her quick wit and tongue, Mistress Quickly jerks, swishes, and proudly struts about her nightclub/bar setting as queen supreme.  As the two plays progress, she too ages somewhat and becomes a bit rattier and torn for wear, but Ms. Mais maintains the Mistress’s humor and heart as well as a sense of spunk that is contagious for all, including Hal himself.

Lauren Modica is a woman naturally of diminutive height whose presence on the stage in both plays is gigantic time and again.  Whether playing the clownish Peto (a follower of Falstaff), the rebel leader Glendower, a sleepy country justice named Silence, or a chief and ultimately doomed opponent of Henry named Mowbry, Ms. Modica finds innumerable ways to be funny, cynical, tough-minded, or simple-minded — whatever the parts demand.

Lileana Blain-Cruz has the advantage as director of Part One of inheriting a script rich in conspiracies to overcome, riotous and ridiculous scenes to play to the hilt, and a battle that serves as climax and turning point for the projected story of both plays.  With the decision to stage these two Henry IV’s in modern dress, Ms. Blain-Cruz’s choice to carry out the battle scenes in the intimate Thomas Theatre as modern warfare is brilliant.  Sounds of helicopters, bombs, and bullets buzzing overhead (as just part of the incredible sound design of Palmer Hefferan) are enhanced by the actual smells of gunpowder and destruction that enter the scenes of war, battle scenes created with the help of Adam Rigg’s scenic elements and Yi Zhao’s inspired lighting.  (All three of these members of the creative team also produce fabulous, outlandish effects for Part One’s Boar’s Head bar scenes.).  Much credit must also go to Christopher DuVal as Fight Coordinator; the clashes and conflicts of the battle scenes that occur just a few feet away from the audience  are shockingly realistic in all respects.

The pace that Ms. Blain-Cruz maintains in Part One with scenes blending quickly one into the other result in the three-hour production almost passing too quickly, so fully absorbing are all the play’s events and episodes.  Unfortunately, that is not uniformly the case in Henry IV, Part Two.  That the almost equal-length play at times feels like it may never end may be due only in small part to the direction of Carl Cofield.  Shakespeare just does not pack as much surprise and suspense into Part Two. There are no battles.  We have already long met most of the funnier characters.  Hal is only briefly back to his old, sinful self; and there are just seemingly a lot more scenes of many wordy lines being passed back and forth without much being said.  

However, when Part Two does build toward the passing of life and lineage between father and son, King and Prince, Mr. Cofield’s direction and the continued excellent portrayals by Jeffery King (King Henry IV) and Daniel José Molina (Prince Hal) combine to bring the two plays’ climax to its rightful peaks of emotion and impact.

Being able in one day, as was I, to see both Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two (and having already been in the audience earlier in the week for Merry Wives) was remarkably wonderful.  That is especially true given the innovative casting the stage and casting directors made for this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival offerings.  The number of women stepping in as women for parts usually played only by men, the inclusion of same-sex married couples, and the employment of at least one actress whose smaller size might belie at first glance her ability to step into large roles — all of these and many more decisions are to be commended and are just some of the reasons that both Henry IV’s should not be missed this 2017 season in Ashland.

Rating, Henry IV, Part One: 5 E

Rating, Henry IV, Part Two: 3.5 E

Photo Credit: Jenny Graham









"The Drowsy Chaperone": Day 7, Play 8, Theatre Eddys at OSF Ashland 2017


The Drowsy Chaperone
Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison (Music & Lyrics); 
Bob Martin & Don McKellar (Book)

From the still-dark stage, we hear a squeaky, dramatic, and overly protracted sigh, followed by “I hate theatre.”  But when the lights finally come up on a rather mousy, nervous-looking man in bow tie and sweater, we soon learn this Man in Chair does love, no adores, no totally idolizes musicals with his full, twittering soul.  He especially likes those musicals of yesteryear found today only among his collection of rare LPs.   From a frumpy chair in his dumpy, one room apartment, we are about to hear — and most improbably actually to see — his favorite musical of all, The Drowsy Chaperone.  

As he plays the overture (which he calls a “poopoo platter of tunes”), his whole body is now in full, twitching frenzy in anticipation of the first sung number.  We settle back to enjoy the 1998 winner of five Tonys by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics) and by Bob Martin and Don McKellar (book) also entitled The Drowsy Chaperone.  Oregon Cabaret Theatre stages this play within a play (better yet, a musical within a play) that parodies in dozens of ways the musicals of the 1920s. With the likes of  an absent-minded dowager, a starlet in love with a cute commoner, comic gangsters, a ditzy chlorine, a martini-toting lush, a foreign Romeo, and many more tongue-in-cheek inserts — this Chaperone is sure to do what the Man in Chair promises a musical is supposed to do: “Take you into another world.”  Oh, it will also for certain produce at least one and probably a stage full of happy endings, guaranteed.

As soon as he puts the vinyl platter on his tiny record player (but only after meticulously cleaning for what seems an eternity the treasured LP), that promised other world comes to life as the first song’s notes begin a parade of quirky characters bursting into his apartment through the refrigerator, closets, and even his walled-up Murphy bed.  As each track plays, the story begins to unfold of a wedding between Vaudeville star Janet Van De Graf and a recently met nobody, Robert Martin.  That is, the story proceeds except when the Man in Chair — bubbling over in his excited opinions — can hold back no longer and jumps in to give commentary.  The increasingly frenetic comedy introduces a money-strapped producer who does not want to lose his star to wedlock, two gangsters-turned-pastry chefs who are hounding same producer for owed money, and his air-head but sweet girlfriend who is ready to be the new star.  
The Man in the Chair’s incessant interjections, unwanted phone calls, a power outage, and even the urgent need for him to go pee all mean the music and the accompanying action come frequently to frozen stops, only to be topped by a stuck record where action on the apartment stage goes into triple-time replays.  

While the forgotten musical’s plots could hardly be more lame and predictable, The Drowsy Chaperone that we watch is a stage full of joy and delight — not without much credit first going to the Man in Chair himself, John Stadelman.

What makes the show so fun for us is a cast of zany but talented characters who can sing and dance up a storm and who, to a person, brings humor and heart to their roles.  Track after track of the Man’s LP produces a number sure to be a hit with us, the audience.  We hear Jake Delaney as Robert, the husband-to-be, sing in a jazzy, ragtime-rich voice “Cold Feet,” soon joined by his best man, George (Edgar Lopez) as the two tap their heels and toes slow, fast, and then super fast all around the room.  

Not to be outdone, Layli Kayhani as the bride Janet brings her starlet voice and diva qualities to the spotlight.  In a virtual Vaudeville tour of tricks, she spins plates on sticks, plays tunes on partly filled glasses, and escapes a locked safe (in this case, the Man’s refrigerator) Houdini-style — all the while belting beautiful notes clear and gorgeous in “Show Off.”

Janet’s pre-nuptial chaperone — aptly named “Drowsy” in the program due to her own constant companion being anything containing vodka — is the wonderfully warbling Gretchen Rumbaugh.  Her voice slides up and down the musical scales in “As We Stumble Along,” sounding as if overly oiled by the best of alcoholic lubricants.  Much of the great fun of Ms. Rumbaugh’s Drowsy Chaperone comes from a pair of eyes whose large, round size allows them to have their own monologues with the audience as she sings through a mouth that hilariously shows off several dozen bizarre ways of shaping its lips.  The result is Ms. Rumbaugh being in many ways the star of the evening.

But there are plenty more characters bringing their own moments of frivolity.  Galloway Stevens is a Latin lover whose voice also rises up to heights with much ado as he tangos with full toreador bravado while singing a ridiculously silly (in all the right ways) “I Am Adolpho.”  Scott Ford is the pin-striped, gravely voiced boss-man Victor Feldzieg who eventually turns soft enough to fall in love with the his gal Kitty (Stephanie Jones), who proves to be much smarter than her squeaky voice and vacant looks might indicate.  A matronly voiced Mrs. Tottendale (Suzanne Sieber) opens the show singing about a rousing “Fancy Dress;” and although she is perpetually forgetful, she remembers with her butler Underling (Billy Breed) that “Love Is Always Lovely in the End” in a cute number sure to bring smiles as the two soft-shoe their way toward newfound bliss.

To the end we must wait to meet the last cast member, a pilot named Trix who saves the day and makes our wait well worth it.  Anastasia Talley lets the air out of her lungs and leads the full cast with a voice that belts to the heavens in “I Do, I Do in the Sky.”  Hallelujah!

Roger DeLaurier directs this spirited, well-voiced cast with zeal and zest, showing love and respect for the musicals of old while at the same time knowing how to smile gently, even laugh out loud at their many eccentricities.  His creative team too shows in all respects knowledge and liking for those shows of old through the flapper-and-fur-rich costumes of Kerri Lea Robbins (not to mention a closet full of black-and-white men’s spectator shoes) and the many dances of the era so well choreographed by Keenon Hooks.  Mike Kunkel ensures that the sound of the tiny record player fills the Cabaret Theatre’s two levels of dinner tables while Kody Johnson’s lighting turns time and again a dingy apartment into a Broadway stage.  

Those visiting Ashland to catch as many of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s offerings are missing a real treat if they do not also sample the fare at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre — both the food and especially the stage shows.  Currently, The Drowsy Chaperone is the perfect, sure-fire pleaser for the first-timer or the annual returnee to Ashland.  It is definitely going to “take you into another world.”

Rating: 5 E