REVIEW: The Drowsy Chaperone (Marriott Theatre)

A journey to another world

 

DROWSY CHAPERONE--Andy Lupp as George and cast

  
Marriott Theatre presents
 
The Drowsy Chaperone
 
Music/Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by
Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Directed/Choreographed by
Marc Robin
Musical direction by
Doug Peck
at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriot Drive (map)
Through June 28th
  |  tickets: $35-$48  |  more info

reviewed by Oliver Sava

I love Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. No, I’m not reviewing Anything Goes, but hang in there with me. The plot is laughable, relying on many standard musical theatre tropes – mistaken identity, leading lady leaving the stage behind, gangsters, horribly offensive racial stereotypes – but really the story is just a vehicle for the music. Can DROWSY CHAPERONE--Tari Kelly as Janet (moon) anyone deny the rousing thrill of “Blow Gabriel Blow”? The devastating heartbreak of “I Get A Kick Out of You”? And that tap break at the end of Act I? Perfection. Listening to Anything Goes is traveling to another time, an age of innocence when every loose end was tied up with a pretty pink ribbon and the only ending was happily ever after. For Man in Chair (the brilliant James Harms), that musical is The Drowsy Chaperone, and when the needle scratches against vinyl his entire world is transformed into the melodramatic paradise of 1920’s musical theatre.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a tribute to the musicals of Porter and Berlin and Gershwin, a celebration of every spit take and tap break, a love letter to the days when love was all there was. Lambert and Morrison’s music and lyrics provide the ballads and belts people expect from the genre, serving up fine pastiches of the genre’s greats, but Martin and McKellar’s ingenious book is what gives the show an added dimension. Man in Chair is a narrator that is the embodiment of escapist theory, physically entering the world that the audience is only able to observe. Sure, he comments on the musical’s absurdities – those pesky stereotypes, the wafer-thin plot, that song with all the monkeys – but the ridiculous fiction is easier than the harsh reality of his lonely apartment. And then there’s a five minute tap break. That’s the kind of musical The Drowsy Chaperone is.

Director Marc Robin is a master at staging in the round, keeping his actors in constant motion so that no one in the audience is stuck staring at backs the whole night, and his energetic choreography creates dimension on the mostly bare stage. Jazz is blended with ballet, ballroom, and some impressive tumbling to create visually stunning images, and the cast dances it beautifully. The aforementioned tap number is lightning quick, seriously demanding, and impeccably executed by the ever-smiling Robert Martin (Tyler Hanes) and his best man George (Andy Lupp). The physical comedy is slapstick at its finest. Each new scene offers a different way for Adolpho (Adam Pelty) to humiliate himself, and Mrs. Tottenham (Paula Scrofano) spitting in Underling’s (Gene Weygandt) face is a long-running gag. The biggest laughs come from the Man in Chair’s commentary, largely because Harms is the one saying it.

 

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From his first monologue in complete darkness to a joyous moon-ride finale (no, that is not supposed to make sense), he charms the audience with his passion for the theater and makes his home a place you want to be. There is a lot of potential darkness to be explored in Man in Chair, and Harms gets just close enough to the edge that he can provoke a little more insight into the character’s struggle while still being able to turn back and box step with a lesbian Aviatrix (Melody Betts). The biggest joke is how different his real life is from the world of The Drowsy Chaperone.

In the title role, Linda Balgord flippantly dismisses the situation at hand in favor of the next drink, belting the inspiring “You’ll Never Walk Alone”-a-la-Joanne-from-Company “As We Stumble Along” to no one in particular. Robert Jordan and Janet Van De Graaff (Teri Kelly) are ideal ingénues, completely idiotic and hopelessly romantic. The racial stereotypes are cartoonish in their exaggeration, from the European (Italian? Spanish?) Adolpho to the “Message From A Nightingale” act II opening, but it’s not offensive if it’s really funny, right?

The Drowsy Chaperone an intelligent musical that builds on the foundations of the genre while paying tribute to the work that has come before it. Those kinds of musicals are hard to find. It’s easier to turn a movie into a musical, or take a Billboard artist’s discography and add a plot. Marriott’s production is a journey to another world, and even if we have to watch from the sidelines, the view is great.

       
        
Rating: ★★★½
     
     

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REVIEW: Fiddler on the Roof (Marriott Theatre)

Marriott takes the Jewish out of Fiddler

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Marriott Theatre presents

Fiddler on the Roof

Book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Based on the stories of Sholom Aleichem
Directed and choreographed by David H. Bell,
musical direction by Doug Peck
Through April 25 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

With its haunting melodies, endearing characters and poignant, historic story, Fiddler on the Roof is one of the greatest musicals of all time. Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick crafted a musical so beautiful, so compelling, that — from Broadway theater to high-school auditorium — it’s a tough show to screw up. As with any production of this engaging show, Marriott Theatre’s "Fiddler" offers much to enjoy, but it’s a long way from a great version.

fiddler03 The story of Tevye, a Jewish dairyman, and his family and friends in the Russian shtetl Anatevka, ca. 1905, is a multi-layered tale both personal and sweeping. In its conflicts between progress and tradition, between generations, between duty and desire and between different faiths and cultures, "Fiddler on the Roof" offers many universal truths. Tevye is a father coming to grips with his children’s coming of age. Anatevka stands for a lost way of life, as exotic and vanished a culture as Brigadoon.

Yet despite the looming presence of the disruptive outsiders, Anatevka represents not just any lost society, but a Jewish homeland, a tight community whose people spoke their own Jewish tongue (Yiddish, the language in which Sholom Aleichem wrote the original stories that inspired this musical) and where they brought up their children according to age-old Jewish customs. Tevye, above anything else, is a deeply religious Jew. Further, his people’s traditions were not just left behind by the passing of time, they were murderously stolen by bitter bigotry.

Fiddler on the Roof, first and foremost, is a Jewish story. Director David H. Bell, in his perception of Tevye as a bland "Everyman," seems to have missed that point.

You’ll rarely hear any Yiddish or Hebraic accent in his version of "Fiddler." When the script or score compels it, as in the "bidi-bidi-bums" of the klezmer-style song, "If I Were a Rich Man," Ross Lehman, as Tevye, seems ill at ease, almost swallowing the fiddler04syllables. James Harms, meanwhile, plays the village rabbi like an Irish priest, complete with rolled R’s. The whole rhythm of the show seems off, in part because it lacks the cantorial cadence normally imbuing the lead.

Lehman may be the least patriarchal Tevye ever — not discounting those high-school productions. It’s not that he’s a tenor in a role typically cast for a baritone and a physically smaller man than the actors famous for this part; it’s mostly his tone. Tevye, a devout and spiritual man, expresses his deep, personal relationship with God and with his family conversationally and often sardonically throughout the play, but he isn’t snide. Lehman’s Tevye is snarky where he ought to be good-humoredly ironic, arch when he should be aggravated. His performance evokes Paul Lynde or Edna Turnblad (his most recent role at Marriott, a brilliant turn) more than Zero Mostel or Topol.

Beyond casting flaws, Bell’s direction and choreography frequently disappoint. Although he’s no newcomer to Marriott’s theater-in-the-round stage, this show seems to have challenged his ingenuity. From my seat in Section 4, far too many scenes had me looking at actors’ backs. Faces were often obscured by vertical posts or the back of another player’s head. This particularly marred the scenes where Tevye and the butcher Lazar Wolf (an oddly low key David Girolmo) talk at cross purposes and in which Tevye recounts his nightmare to his wife, Golde. Bell redeems these scenes somewhat by well-executed dance numbers, but there, too, I often seemed to be viewing them edge on.

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Marriott Theatre typically stages musicals with large casts beautifully, yet the "Fiddler" stage often seemed cramped and overcrowded, particularly in ensemble numbers such as the "Sabbath Prayer" sequence. Thomas M. Ryan’s set is lightly furnished (except for those unfortunate posts) and he’s used hanging lanterns and other tricks to expand the stage beyond its physical space, so that fault can’t be laid at his feet.

The ensemble as a whole perform very well, and nothing can rob the power from "To Life" or "Sunrise, Sunset." Andrew Keltz, as Motel, does a sweet version of "Miracle of Miracles," but there are no strong individual voices. Again, beyond Nancy Missimi’s traditional costumes, the characters, even in otherwise excellent performances such as Jessie Mueller’s anguished Tzeitel, Rebecca Finnegan’s brisk Yente and Paula Scrofano’s forthright Golde, rarely convey any sense of Jewish or Old World identity.

The residents of Bell’s Anatevka don’t need to go to America at the end of the play. They’re already there.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

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REVIEW: The Pirates of Penzance (Light Opera Works)

Rollicking fun, if not quite a glorious thing

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Light Opera Works presents

The Pirates of Penzance
By W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed and choreographed by
Rudy Hogenmiller
Through Jan. 3 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One of the few professional Chicago companies to put on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, Light Opera Works typically mounts one of their operettas each year, with just eight performances. This year, it’s a solid version of The Pirates of Penzance, one of the duo’s most popular comic operas, full of witty lines and catchy music.

To know W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan is to love them. Funny and musically brilliant, every one of their collaborations is a delight.

It’s hard to imagine anyone coming away from a well-done production of almost any of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas without wanting to see more. Maybe it’s the "opera" in "comic opera" that scares people off. Maybe it’s the technical difficulty and expense of producing shows that require skilled orchestras and large, talented choruses. Whatever it is, it’s rare that Chicagoans get to see these classics done with the splendor they deserve.

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Light Opera Works does a satisfying but not thrilling job of "Pirates," one of the funniest and most timeless of the G&S canon. Its characteristically silly plot revolves around Frederic, an apprentice pirate. Meant to be articled to a ship’s pilot, he was instead mistakenly indentured to a pirate by his hard-of-hearing nursery maid. The dutiful young man has served diligently in the rather soft-hearted pirate band, but now his term of service is up, and he means to dedicate himself to wiping out his former comrades.

He becomes more determined after he meets Major-General Stanley’s bevy of beautiful daughters, whom the lovelorn pirate crew tries to kidnap, and falls in love with the intrepid Mabel. But then, the pirate king points out a technicality that means Frederic’s contract to the pirates is still in force. Delightful songs and comic shenanigans ensue.

A highlight of the production, bass-baritone Michael Cavalieri looks too amiable to be a Pirate King, but he gives us a glorious "Oh, better far to live and die." Musical theater veteran James Harms is the very model of a Major-General Stanley, effortlessly delivering the centerpiece patter song in fine comic style.

As in many productions, this crowd-pleaser gets a speeded-up reprise, although this one rather insults audiences. It’s usual to hint the meaning of the couplet, "In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy — / You’ll say a better Major-General has never sat a gee," by having the singers mime riding horseback on the final rhyme, but when Harms repeats the line, he sings, "never sat a horse" — as if we were too dumb to get it the first time.

Other than that, Director Rudy Hogenmiller steers mercifully clear of modernizing, while aiming at very broad comedy. The police force, for instance, comes straight out of the Keystone Kops. Bass Frank M. DeVincentis, both vocally and comically perfect as the Sergeant of Police, does a bang-up job with "When a felon’s not engaged in his employment."

Tenor Matthew Giebel brings an excellent voice to Frederic. As Mabel, Alicia Berneche trills her way through "Poor wandering one!" and "Stay, Frederic, stay!" at high coloratura pitch. All of the women sound a bit shrill, even the dashing Barbara Landis in the contralto role of Ruth, Frederic’s nurse turned piratical maid of all work.

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Conductor Roger L. Bingaman’s largely workmanlike musical direction stumbles here and there. The orchestra doesn’t excite, and harmonizing, in songs like "When you had left our pirate fold," sung by Landis, Giebel and Cavalieri, isn’t all that it could be. The choristers do fine work, though, with particularly clear enunciation in numbers like "How beautifully blue the sky."

Hogenmiller’s dance sequences sometimes seem cluttered, but that only adds to the fun. Jill Van Brussel‘s costumes shine, particularly the colorful pirates’ garb. Tom Burch‘s cut-out sets neither add much nor detract.

Overall, the flaws of this production are far outweighed by its successes, together with the sheer brilliance of the original score and script. If it’s not the glittering production that Gilbert and Sullivan fans yearn for, it’s still loads of fun and good enough to inspire G&S newcomers to want more.

Are you listening, Chicago thespians?

Rating: ★★★