Farmer's Branch — The Drowsy Chaperone at the Firehouse Theatre is irresistibly fun. This show with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison and book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar delights audiences because it is a throwback to the time of glamorous stars delivering melodramatic storylines while singing and dancing their character shoes off. Derek Whitener (director), Bethany Lorentzen (music director), Mindy Neuendorff (choreographer) have teamed to bring the best elements of this story and of the cast to the forefront. Their guidance is enhanced by a design team that enables pizzazz without becoming it. A perhaps overworked word used for musicals is “sparkling,” but sorry, this production really is — not to mention sparkly.
We enter as Man in Chair (Lon Barrera) is reminiscing about the stories from yesteryear by listening to his records (as in vinyl), which he carefully and lovingly dusts, using a device unseen by generations after the 1980s (or, until recent years as vinyl and record player sales have returned). He selects a recording of a rare 1928 musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. In this story, the music is by Julie Gable and lyrics are by Sidney Stein. Man in Chair starts by acknowledging the orchestra playing the overture, lamenting the loss of full appreciation for overtures in musicals these days. As he talks with us about the show, the characters appear in his living room through the song “Fancy Dress.”
Mrs. Tottendale (Christia Caudle) and Underling (Doug Fowler) enter first. She wants to make sure her dress is right for the wedding today between Robert Martin (Tyler Jeffrey Adams) and Janet Van De Graaff (Janelle Lutz). The groom’s best man, George (Preston Isham) enters as does Mr. Feldzieg (Dan Servetnick) and his person, Kitty (Hilary Evitt Allen). Two gangsters posing as pastry chefs arrive (Clint Gilbert and Tim Brawner) followed by gigolo Adolpho (Hunter Lewis). The Chaperone (Elisa Danielle James) finally appears, flask in hand. The last character to appear is aviatrix, Trix (Christian O’Neill Houston).
Not to be ignored are ensemble members: Christina Kudlicki Hoth (dance captain), Marilyn Setu, Carissa Aguila, Rebecca Luby, Caitlin Jones, Taylor Owen, Gabriel Ethridge, Blake Seabourn, Jacob Rivera-Sanchez, and Gideon Ethridge. There are no actors-as-potted plants in musicals like this.
The bride has chosen to give up her career to marry Robert, thus throwing the producer Feldzieg into a panic. Kitty sees this as her opportunity to become a star. Feldzieg cooks up a scheme (enter the gangsters) to break up the couple before they marry. He enlists Adolpho to seduce the bride. The situation is set, conflict established, tension cued up. Through it all is our narrator, the wonderfully eccentric and lovable Man in Chair.
Barrera is so comfortable in this role it is as if he is not acting at all, rather just chatting with us along the way. As this musical is a spoof on those early musical spectaculars, the acting has to be highly stylized and full of affected poses and speech. The funny lines combined with the exaggerated gestures make for funny moments in a show that never stops moving.
This is not an easy piece to put together because there is so much movement, and the Man in Chair has to successfully keep the audience on track, buying into the story while remembering it is through his memory. Barrera weaves in and around the characters onstage, essentially photobombing them. For his character, as long as the record plays, this is real.
None of the performances are weak. A few standouts are Servetnick for acting and for dancing, and Lutz as Janet, West as Robert and Fowler as Underling. Houston has a powerful voice which is perfect for a 1920s aviatrix. My favorite number is in the second act, “Bride’s Lament,” which Man in Chair describes as a mix of a “little bit of Busby Berkeley and a little Jane Goodall.” Those costumes killed me, as did the choreography.
There are so many little elements to this piece, such as when the record skips. (That’s when the needle struggles to move across a scratch in the record or perhaps dust.)
The idea of the skipping and repetitive attempts by the needle arm to move forward is replicated in the music and therefore in the dance. The choreography at that moment is so clever in that it doesn’t simply repeat itself, it jerks the performers back into place much as the scratch jerks the needle arm back to the beginning groove. That touch is everything because it elevates the dance.
Brandon Tijerina has designed a set that supports the story without cluttering the stage. At no time do movements seem constricted, nor does the space seem as small as it actually is. There are more than a few props in this show (Derek Whitener, Adam Kullman, Marilyn Setu and Linda Bambina) but none are gratuitous. Victor Newman Brockwell’s costumes establish the period and are suitable for movement. Even in the scenes that do not require dancing, characters need the ability to move into stylized positions, such as sitting on a suspended crescent moon. Lighting and sound (both credited to Studio 147) are present, but not obvious.
Most impressively is the balance between the band and the performers, something that can always be a little dicey in spaces like this, with no orchestra pit. Musical arrangements are produced by Michael Dill, who also plays reeds. Bethany conducts musicians Jesse Fry and Maria Lorentzen (keyboards) and Michael Ptacin on drums. At no time does the band overpower or leave the actors behind. Sound design achieves balance, but it takes a sharp music director to listen to what is happening onstage and adjust the playing as appropriate to achieve cohesion.
In a region with so many productions happening at the same time, it’s hard to assemble an ace production team and cast, but Whitener has done just that. He also keeps the pace moving; as it should be, this show is high-energy leaving no time to get lost or bored.
A good, entertaining show that brings a lot of laughter is what we all need.