Review: “The Drowsy Chaperone” at Goodspeed Opera House

Stephanie Rothenberg (Janet Van de Graaf) with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals' The Drowsy Chaperone, now playing at The Goodspeed through November 25. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Stephanie Rothenberg (Janet Van de Graaf) with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals' The Drowsy Chaperone, now playing at The Goodspeed through November 25. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Noah Golden

  • Associate Connecticut Critic

I’ve never really cottoned to old song-and-dance musicals. You know, the kind with peppy tap numbers, sunny jokes and conflicts that resolve in a few bars of music. The kind Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut is largely known for. Even though I’m generally a rather sunny guy, my taste in theater veers towards shows that some might call bummers. Your “Sweeneys,” your “Spring Awakenings,” your “Next To Normals.” Shows that might leave you, as the unnamed narrator in “The Drowsy Chaperone” says, “a bit blue.” But between my usual diet of depressing theater and the dire state of our country right now, I have to agree with the so-called Man In Chair and give in to the fact that, sometimes, an old-fashioned musical is exactly what the doctor prescribed.

 “The Drowsy Chaperone,” which closes Goodspeed’s 2017-2018 season is a highly entertaining cream puff of a play. It’s sweet and airy and has just enough heft to not merely float away. Written by Bob Martin & Don McKellar (book) and Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison (music and lyrics), “Chaperone” is a fizzy 2006 Broadway smash that lovingly sends-up the long-forgotten shows of yesteryear. It concerns a lonely, skittish shut-in dubbed Man In Chair (John Scherer, hilarious) who first laments when actors relate directly to audience members during a play (“I didn’t pay good money to have the fourth wall come crashing down around my ears.”) before spending the next two hours doing just that. He introduces the audience to his favorite musical, a (fictional) 1920s show called “The Drowsy Chaperone” which Man In Chair has never seen himself but has listened to obsessively since childhood. Because he’s feeling a bit blue, Man decides to play the entirety of the album and, as he imagines the musical in his mind, it comes to life right in his drab apartment (Howard Jones did the tricked-out set).

The show-within-a-show revolves the wedding of Janet Van de Graaff (Stephanie Rothenberg) and Robert Martin (Clyde Alves). He’s the son of a wealthy oil magnate and she’s a showgirl whose marriage means the end of her stage career. That’s a problem for her harried producer Mr. Feldzeig (James Judy) and his dim-witted protégée (Ruth Pferdehirt), whose business dealings are somehow wrapped up with the mob. The wedding also proves a logistical nightmare for Robert’s put-upon best man (Tim Falter) and Janet’s boozy caretaker (Jennifer Allen, in full grand dame mode). Also staying at the wedding estate is a forgetful society lady (Ruth Gotschall), her straight-laced butler (Jay Aubrey Jones), a bumbling Lothario (John Rapson) and two gangsters posing as pastry chefs (Blakely Slaybaugh and Parker Slaybaugh). Of course, hi-jinks ensue, identities are mistaken, complications arise and then everything is neatly resolved before the final curtain.

The plot is purposefully thin, merely a series of songs and shtick connected by a needlessly busy story. But that’s part of “Chaperone’s” charm. If you begin to find yourself tired of a bit of physical comedy or a high-energy dance number, per se, the show quickly careens quickly into another song or a new set of jokes. There’s also the joy of Man In Chair’s narration. He is constantly interrupting the action to offer citations about the fake actors (“The gangsters were played by vaudeville duo John and Peter Tall. They were born Abram and Mendel Mosloskowicz, but were renamed at Ellis Island by a sarcastic immigration official”), personal interjections and even a fair share of meta-criticism. One song’s lyrics, he says, are dumb while the extended spit-take joke is lame and tired. I agree. These interruptions are not just hysterical but also feel like one big, winking in-joke since so much of Goodspeed’s repertoire is made up of the shows “Drowsy” is lampooning. The moment when Man puts on the wrong record, resulting in the presentation of a hilariously offensive “King and I”-esque stage show, is downright genius.

The cast all perfectly mirrors the chipper, overacted style of 1920s-‘40s style musicals. Rothenberg and Allen are a delight, while Falter is in pure Donald O'Connor mode. Rapson makes a four-course meal of the scenery, indulging in a cartoony accent that Man In Chair is quick to point out as being culturally insensitive and passé. In fact, all the dancing and singing is top-notch (the band sounds amazing too). But pulling everything together is Scherer, who plays Man In Chair like a wannabe chorus boy whose Broadway dreams were sidetracked by a troubled childhood and a disastrously short marriage. One might gander that a male companion would have suited him better. His comedic chops are sharp and it’s a joy to watch Scherer mouth the lyrics along to the musical numbers. Perhaps he leans into the fey affections a bit too heavily – a more restrained performance would have been a better contrast to the wacky fake-musical and might have made his few emotionally honest monologues land a bit more truthfully – but nevertheless, he’s a hoot start to finish.

So is the whole production. It’s clear director Hunter Foster understands and has a love for the material. There’s a joy on stage that’s nearly impossible to replicate. It overcomes the occasional lame joke or the shoe-horned intermission which leaves the show oddly lopsided or the fact that sight-lines are sometimes an issue in the beautiful but totally flat auditorium. “Drowsy” isn’t a perfect musical, but it’s a helluva lot of fun, which is exactly the point. As Man In Chair says about the show-within-a-show “It does what a musical is supposed to do: it takes you to another world and it gives you a little tune to carry in your head, you know? A little something to help you escape the dreary horrors of the real world...I just want a story and a few songs that will take me away. I want to be entertained. I mean, isn’t that the point?” In this case, I couldn’t agree with him more.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” runs through November 25 at the Goodspeed Opera House.

 Noah Golden is an associate theater critic and columnist for OnStage based near New Haven, CT. Throughout his life, he has been involved in many facets of theater from acting to directing to playing drums in the pit. When not in or writing about theater, Noah is a video producer and editor. Twitter: @NoahTheGolden. 

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Review: 'A Wonderful Life The Musical' at Goodspeed Musicals

Nancy Sasso Janis

‘A Wonderful Life The Musical’ opened in September at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, but press opening was this week. I attended soon after on a not particularly well-attended Friday evening. 

Bedford Falls comes alive in this Goodspeed premiere of the tale of finding hope in your own hometown. In this tuneful re-imaging of the classic film with “It’s” at the beginning of the title, a would-be angel comes to the rescue of desperate banker George Bailey on Christmas Eve. It reminds us that “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

I have written before that the movie is not one of my favorites, but I was heartened by the fact that the music for this version was written by Sesame Street composer Joe Raposo. The late composer wrote over 1,000 songs for the venerable children’s show. Musical numbers would add value and make the piece a little happier, I thought. The book being written by the Tony-winning co-creator of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ Sheldon Harnick also raised my hopes. 

"Christmas Gifts" The cast of 'A Wonderful Life' Photo by Diane Sobolewski

‘A Wonderful Life’ was billed as heartwarming, and in a few parts I guess it was. Family-friendly for sure, with a few young actors featured in only the second act. Director Michael Perlman and his team were going for a Norman Rockwell look to the production and in parts it definitely gave off that vibe, especially in the truly wonderful period costumes by Jennifer Caprio, wigs and hair by Mark Adam Rampmeyer and the magical set designed by Brian Prather. 

There were plenty of scenes to move along the well-known action and some were helped by the addition of the musical numbers. I felt that the songs were uneven at best, with only maybe the title song being memorable. There was some good choreography to fit the little Goodspeed stage by Parker Esse for the Charleston number and some wardrobe tricks for Mary during the fantasy “First Class All the Way.” The rest, despite the best efforts of the talented cast, just felt not so wonderful. Some changes were made to the second act according to an insert in the program that were hopefully for the better.

Duke Lafoon played George with sincerity but seemed a bit disconnected from the other actors at times; he did show off his wonderful singing voice in a few numbers. Kirsten Scott (Jenny Hill in Broadway’s ‘Big Fish’) looked the part of Mary and made the most of an underwhelming role. Logan James Hall played the role of George’s brother Harry. 

George McDaniel played angel Matthew, Tom, Mr. Martini and Bob Hepner and Frank Vlastnik was pretty cute as the angel-to-be Clarence. 

Broadway veteran Ed Dixon played the evil Mr. Potter quite well and Josh Franklin played the equally unlikable Sam Wainwright. Berthe B. Austin played both the Bailey matriarch and Mrs. Martini. Ryan G. Dunkin played Ernie and Kevin C. Loomis played Burt (in a Sesame Street homage?) Michael Medeiros was believable as the hapless Uncle Billy. 

The three local actors chosen to play the Bailey children include the talented Ben Stone-Zelman as Tommy and sisters Riley and Ella Briggs of East Hampton as Beth and Zuzu (and who names their child Zuzu?) I remembered Young Ben who has appeared at Hartford Stage in ‘A Christmas Carol’ and at Landmark Community Theatre in ‘Little Mermaid’ and ‘Mary Poppins.’ All the ensemble members gave it their all. 

‘A Wonderful Life’ runs at Goodspeed Musicals at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 29, 2015.

Review: 'La Cage au Faux' at Goodspeed Musicals

Nancy Sasso Janis

A smart and classy version of the farce ‘La Cage aux Folles’ has been extended through September 10 at the beautiful Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam and it truly is “The Best of Times.” This show holds the honor of being the only musical that has won a Tony Award for Best Production (Best Musical or Best Revival of a Musical) for each of its Broadway productions. 

 Goodspeed Musicals produced the sassy show with a book by Harvey Fierstein (‘Newsies’ and ‘Kinky Boots’) and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman (‘Hello, Dolly’ and ‘Mame’) which is based on a 1973 play by Jean Poiret of the same name. ‘La Cage’ inspired the hilarious film ‘The Birdcage’ with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. 

 Mr. Herman’s shiny show tunes fill this over-the-top story of a family of cabaret performers led by long-time partners Georges and Albin. The pair own a drag nightclub in Saint-Tropez, France and have lovingly raised Georges’ son to adulthood. When Jean-Michel (played by Conor Ryan) brings home his fiancee and ultra-conservative future in-laws, the family’s dynamics are put to the test in a deliciously funny yet poignant manner. 

“So when my spirit starts to sag, I hustle out my highest drag, And put a little more mascara on.” Jamison Stern as ZaZa with Les Cagelles of Goodspeed Musicals’  La Cage aux Folles now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 10.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolews

“So when my spirit starts to sag, I hustle out my highest drag, And put a little more mascara on.” Jamison Stern as ZaZa with Les Cagelles of Goodspeed Musicals’  La Cage aux Folles now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through September 10.  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolews

 Of course the nightclub ‘La Cage aux Folles’ (which translates literally to   "the cage of mad women") looks amazing on the tiny Goodspeed stage with a very pink set designed by Michael Schweikardt.There is “a little guts and a lot of glitter” without being vulgar and costume designer Michael McDonald has outdone himself. The chorus looked amazing in their multitude of changes, and even an usher sported a pink boa.

 Rob Ruggiero has smartly directed the action with slick choreography by Ralph Perkins. Music Director Michael O’Flaherty conducted the talented pit orchestra. Kudos to Mark Adam Rampmeyer of his work with hair, wig and makeup design. 

 Darius Barnes (Phaedra,) Michael Bullard (Chantal,) Alexander Cruz (Mercedes,) Alex Ringler (Hanna,) Nick Silverio (Clo-Clo) and Nic Thompson (Bitelle) were so good as the “Notorious Cagelles and I marvelled at their ability to change quickly. Erin M. Kernion rounded out the ensemble and played the ingenue Nicolette as well. 

 Chris Hietikko and Barbara McCulloh played a couple that own a cafe. Kristen Martin played the beautiful Anne who wants nothing more than to wed Jean-Michel. Stacey Scotte was believable as her mother and Mark Zimmerman was perfectly boorish as her father. Sue Mathys played the sassy restaurant owner Jacqueline. The beleaguered stage manager of La Cage aux Folles was played to perfection by Wade Dooley.

 Cedric Leiba, Jr. was so wonderful in the role of the smart and sassy “maid” Jacob that he repeatedly had the press night audience applauding as he closed the obligatory doors as he exited the stage. He got the lion’s share of the laughs in what was a laugh-filled evening. 

 James Lloyd Reynolds brought lots of charm to the leading role of Georges and had a wonderful singing voice. Jamison Stern was amazingly accurate as the flamboyant Albin and brought down the house as Zaza sang the anthem “I Am What I Am” at the close of act one. Such was the power of his beautiful voice and stage presence. 

 My teen and I really enjoyed this show that was a new one for us. Remember that it is a farce and focus of the fun. Don’t expect the setting, the music and the jokes from the film version and you won’t be disappointed. This Goodspeed Musicals interpretation is up to their usual standards of quality and deserves the extended run. 

Review - 'Guys and Dolls' at Goodspeed Musicals

Nancy Sasso Janis

'Guys and Dolls,' a musical fable of Broadway, will be enjoying a nice long run at the Goodspeed Opera House as Goodspeed Musicals opens it's 2015 season with a show they have never before produced. The story is based on a story and characters by Damon Runyon with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and the book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. The brassy new staging at Goodspeed was directed by Don Stephenson, choreographed by Alex Sanchez, and musical direction by Michael O'Flaherty.
The experience at Goodspeed began when the ushers wearing fedoras showed patrons to their seats. Then the recorded announcements were done in character by Nicely-Nicely. On the stage there was a set that featured a Times Square neon effect (actually more energy efficient LED lighting) on moveable panels that set the scene, well, nicely.
I will admit that I am not a big fan of this show but this production gave me a new appreciation for it's merits. The pace of this production was stepped up and that definitely helped. The choreography was on the level of 'Newsies' on the tiny Goodspeed stage and that is about as good as it gets. The musicians in the pit under the direction of Mr. O'Flaherty could not have been better as well.

General Matilda B Cartwright (Karen Murphy),  Big Jule (Jerry Gallagher) and the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Guys and Dolls now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through June 20. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski

General Matilda B Cartwright (Karen Murphy),  Big Jule (Jerry Gallagher) and the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Guys and Dolls now playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through June 20. Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Especially fine scenes were the first act closer, the quiet "I've Never Been in Love Before," and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat." There was plenty of fun and lots of heart.
The large cast, almost all Equity professionals, were a mix of Goodspeed veterans and new faces. Nancy Anderson was an adorable Miss Adelaide, the perennial fiancée of Nathan Detroit, played with lots of charm by Mark Price. Scott Cote made his Goodspeed debut as the very cute Nicely-Nicely. Jerry Gallagher was a very big Big Jule, but wasn't overly scary. Karen Murphy was the commanding Gen. Cartwright.
Manna Nichols debuted at the opera house in the role of Sarah Brown and she sang beautifully. Noah Plomgren played gambler Benny Southstreet and the handsome Tony Roach oozed charm as Sky Matherson. All the 'guys' in the men's chorus sang in tight harmony and danced so very well.
Kudos to John Jellison who played Arvide Abernathy, Sarah's uncle and fellow mission worker. He gave a heartfelt and heartwarming performance as her loving uncle.
Costumes designed by Tracy Christensen were colorful and perfect for the period, with some of Adelaide's having a cartoon quality that definitely worked.
Michael Gennaro is the new Executive Director of Goodspeed Musicals, having recently replaced Founding Director Michael P. Price. Mr. Gennaro's father Peter danced in the 1950 Broadway production of 'Guys and Doll.' Director Don Stephenson is the husband of Mr. Loesser's daughter Emily, so this production is a bit of a family affair.
Guys and Dolls will run through June 20, 2015 Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.).