Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Drowsy Chaperone - WAAPA (14 March 2016)

One of the highlights of the Perth theatrical calendar is undoubtedly WAAPA’s mid-year musical extravaganza at the Regal Theatre. Increasingly though I would argue that the first performance slot of a musical theatre graduating class is the one to watch with Hair (2014), Urinetown (2015) and now this stunning production of The Drowsy Chaperone in the Geoff Gibbs Theatre.

The show ticks all the boxes – gorgeous production values, a witty script, fabulous performances across the board, a fun score, and above all it is consistently laugh out loud funny. At a brisk 100 minutes with no interval it is utterly infectious and a complete triumph. It’s not hard to see why it won Best Original Score and Best Book at the 2006 Tony Awards and this class does that pedigree justice with a thoroughly entertaining outing.

The story itself is a parody of all the tropes of the musical comedy genre as a theatre lover listens to one of his favourite recordings, the fictional 1928 production of The Drowsy Chaperone. On a vinyl record no less! The show comes to life in his living room as the ‘Man in Chair’ (Ashley Roussety) forgets all about his troubles and provides witty and arch commentary about the performers, the plot, and reveals more than a little of his own back story.

The story itself swirls around the impending marriage of starlet Janet Van De Graaff (Stephanie Wall) and Robert Martin (Matthew Manahan) while a collection of characters as diverse as gastronomic gangsters, a desperate producer, a ditzy wannabe starlet, a Latin lothario, and, of course, an increasingly inebriated chaperone provide a variety of hilarious obstacles and hijinks. It catapults towards a happy ending... it is, after all, a musical... and is in the finest tradition of good old-fashioned Broadway entertainment.   

Roussety is superb as our narrator. The show starts in darkness as he expresses the fears of many an audience member – will the show be short, entertaining, and not have actors entering the stalls. His tone is conversational and I immediately relaxed into the opening number as he demonstrated excellent comic timing and warmth in addressing and responding to the audience. It’s a nicely judged performance as Roussety imbues the character with enthusiasm, passion, some snark sure but also tinged with an underlying sadness or being ‘blue’ as Man in Chair would put it. He totally grounds the production and makes the narrative device work so effectively that all the gags relating to the turntable and the vagaries of a stylus on vinyl... on vinyl... on vinyl... ahem, sorry... work a treat.

But excellent performances abound and it’s interesting that the story is constructed in such a way that there are several distinct comic pairings and every principal cast member gets a showpiece moment. Man in Chair effectively is the narrative device that links one great number after another.

The hostess for the wedding, Mrs Tottendale, is played by Melissa Russo as a somewhat dotty matriarch with an outlandishly odd accent to say the least. Her comic pair is the servant simply known as Underling who is given an amusing air of English fortitude and thinly veiled disapproval by Jens Radda. Russo and Radda work beautifully together with one of the highlights involving a glass of “iced water” that is gloriously funny in its silliness.

The producer Feldzieg (Andre Drysdale) and his potential new ingénue Kitty (Christina Odam) are irresistible as another comic pairing; the former being pressured to stop the wedding so he doesn’t lose his star; the latter exuberant in her claim to be a perfect replacement. Drysdale is in full on Groucho Marx mode as he chomps on the scenery like a not so cheap cigar while Odam impresses with an adorably ditzy characterisation of the not so bright but eager wannabe star. Both deploy exaggerated accents to good effect while Odam bounces around the set on the balls of her feet as if exploding with excitement at the prospect of being the next Janet Van De Graaff.    

Janet herself is given haughtiness and glamour by Stephanie Wall who looks stunning, sings beautifully, and sells the conceit that she is the world’s biggest and most desirable star. The song Show Off is a highlight as Wall proves adept at doing exactly that, showing off in a number of ways while feigning modesty. It’s the sort of set piece that brings all elements together – singing, choreography, direction, music, and sheer verve – to stunning effect.

That it comes immediately after another eye opening sequence – the tap dance routine of Cold Feets – by Manahan’s debonair groom and his fretting best man George (Mikey Halcrow) with a killer cameo by Radda – is testament to how wonderfully entertaining this all is.

Then there’s the drowsy chaperone herself, Stefanie Caccamo, who plays the role with such casual insouciance that her every appearance on stage is compelling. Displaying a powerful voice that she uses tellingly in her “rousing anthem” As We Stumble Along there is real swagger here and not only as the character becomes increasingly tipsy. Her comic pairing comes in the form of Jason Arrow’s amorous Aldolpho who is tasked by Feldzieg to stop the wedding by sleeping with the bride. Mistaken identities dot the story in the best Shakespearean comic tradition and Arrow laps up the over-exaggerated Latin lover stereotype with Freddy Mercury style strut and vocal dexterity.  

Samuel Welsh and Hayden Baum are the two gangsters who have their own shtick going on with bad culinary puns as they heavy Feldzieg to save Janet from wedding induced retirement. That they are pressed into service as Kitty’s backup dancers during Toledo Surprise is another comic highlight. I must also mention the ‘false start’ of the faux second act opener that is such a brilliantly pointed slap at Rodgers and Hammerstein that I was gasping at the audacity of it all.

Finally we have the deus ex machina literally swooping down from the clouds in Trix the Aviatrix (Embla Bishop) who saves the day as all the complications collide. It’s a stirring finale as Bishop leads the company in belting out I Do, I Do In The Sky with a surprising twist that involves more than the hand cranked propeller she wields on her bi-plane.

This show really is outstanding – the ensemble added vibrancy and colour; the choreography of different dance styles from the twenties is outstanding; it truly looks sumptuous with the period costuming, clever set design, and is the most startlingly lit show I’ve seen at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre; the orchestra under Musical Director David King was exemplary, and it is flat out funny. I can’t remember having a better time in a theatre in quite a while. 

Surprisingly there were a few vacant seats at the Monday evening show. I don’t expect that to last long as word of mouth already has this as one of the best shows at WAAPA in years. Sure, you can wait for the cast recording on vinyl (good luck!)... but I suggest you book yourself a ticket as this is a terrific way to start WAAPA’s 2016 performance programme.

Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison; Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar; directed with flair by Crispin Taylor; with choreography by Bernie Bernard and Musical Direction by David King, The Drowsy Chaperone is on at the Geoff Gibbs Theatre until 19 March.  

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