"I hate theater," a whiny voice in the dark says at the tippy-top of The Drowsy Chaperone. "Well, it's so disappointing, isn't it?" The Man in Chair, as he's called in this creampuff of a musical, continues for a few more lines before the lights come up. He expresses his fervent desire (ours too) that shows be short and not have actors mingling directly with the audience. His requirements (ours too) for a bit of theatrical entertainment are simple. All he wants, he says, is a story and "a few good songs that will take me away."
Oh, yes, please.
For the first couple of numbers in Theatre Three's production of said creampuff, we almost get our wish. The set-up is a snap. Man in Chair, played by Channel 8's Good Morning Texas host Rob McCollum, lives and breathes musical theater lore from the era when Cole Porter and the Gershwins turned out the tunes for Broadway hits. This Man is such a fusty purist he still plays his beloved cast albums on a turntable. The record he sets the needle down on for us, as the guests in his small Manhattan living room, is The Drowsy Chaperone, a silly (and completely made up) 1928 pastiche of musical rom-com clichés involving brides, grooms, dowagers, gangsters, butlers and hand-wringing theater producers.
As Man in Chair spills the plot about a glam showgirl named Janet (Erica Peterman) and her reluctant fiancé, a snooty Long Island playboy named Robert (Jeremy Dumont), the show within the show comes vividly to life. Characters pour out of our host's refrigerator door and climb through his apartment windows, taking over the action. We see the musical as Man in Chair imagines it looked back in its day. He's listened to the vintage cast recording so many times, he includes its flaws in the re-enacting of it, including repeats of parts where the scratchy record skips words or the needle gets stuck in a groove. He occasionally stops the music—freezing all the other actors mid-gesture—to fill us in on some arcane bit of trivia about the stars of the show.
Cute, cute, cutey McCute. For the first 10 minutes or so of Theatre Three's ambitious staging of Chaperone, it looks as if this might be one of the rare musical comedies this playhouse has put on that doesn't suck.
The high point of the hilarity, however, is reached in only the second tune after the overture, "Cold Feets," sung and danced by Robert and his best man, George (Todd Hart). The fiancé is skittish about impending nuptials to a flighty actress, afraid she won't give up showbiz to settle down at his Long Island manse. Robert launches into "a song an old Negro taught me, a Dixie remedy for wedding day jitters." Then he starts to tap his troubles away.
And here's where Theatre Three's co-director/choreographers Michael Serrecchia and Megan Kelly Bates get their casting absolutely perfect. Jeremy Dumont, the young actor and dancer who made a splash a year ago tapping the floor to splinters in Lyric Stage's Funny Girl, is a phenomenal hoofer in the tradition of Astaire, Kelly and Tune. He hits the syncopated beats of "Cold Feets" with such precision he makes the band sound sloppy as they try to keep up with him. Partnered with teddy-bear-shaped Hart, who's a pretty apt tapper himself, Dumont flies up and down stairs in the number and wings into all four corners of T3's in-the-square stage, which seems acres too small to contain his energy. (He comes back later in the show to dance on roller skates...blindfolded.)
Dumont's also a dandy comic actor. Mugging and double-taking while tapping madly, he's like Donald O'Connor in the "Make 'em Laugh" routine from Singin' in the Rain. He nails the exaggerated tone of Chaperone better than anyone else in the 21-actor ensemble. Here's a show that should bubble like a champagne fountain, with everyone in it acting a little tipsy and off-kilter. But except for Dumont, Hart and Arianna Movassagh, playing a dim-witted secretary with aspirations of stardom, most of the Theatre Three cast stumbles through the dance steps and belabors the comedy as if they had no clue to the giddy style of No, No, Nanette or The Boyfriend, the old shows Drowsy Chaperone sends up.
Some of the T3 cast perform like spillovers from a low-rent staging of a Disney musical. Lon Barrera, playing a butler named Underling, could be mistaken for Lumiere, the dancing candelabra in Beauty & the Beast (though much less incandescent). Brian Hathaway, as a Lothario named Aldolpho, gets plenty of laughs for his cartoon comedy moves but has to compete with his shiny wig, a black and white-striped horror even Cruella de Vil would reject. Casting the character Trixie the Aviatrix as a man in drag is a swell idea, but nobody's bothered to beautify Darius-Anthony Robinson beyond swiping his eyelids with bad blue eye shadow.
After "Cold Feets," Drowsy Chaperone devolves into a hot mess. What should be a showstopper—and usually is in this musical — is a number called "Show Off" that becomes progressively more elaborate the more the Janet character insists she no longer wants attention. But Erica Peterman, showing off weak dancing and singing skills, never kicks it out of neutral. As Drowsy Chaperone's title character, Marisa Diotalevi is fine with the funny business but doesn't sing loud enough to be heard over the band. (As always, T3 doesn't mic the cast, which cheats the audience out of more than half the lyrics and dialogue as actors keep spinning around to hit each compass point of the theater.)
McCollum, always over-caffeinated in his other job as mid-morning TV chat-show host, could use some double shots to goose up the energy of his Man in Chair. He's mildly amusing as the musicals-obsessed nebbish in a baggy brown sweater, but anyone who's heard the Drowsy cast album can tell that McCollum's gone the lazy route of merely mimicking the inflections and timing of the role's Broadway originator, Bob Martin (who also wrote the show's book with Don McKellar; songs are by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison). Imitation is sincerely flattering and all that hogwash, but is it that hard to bring some originality to Man in Chair?
At Theatre Three we know better than to hope for more than mediocrity in the technical aspects of any show and this dowdy Chaperone lives up to low expectations on all counts. Designer Jeffrey Schmidt's scenery is a confusing mash-up of fake brick walls sprayed with focus-pulling graffiti against a parade of bright-colored comic book props and set pieces—it's West Side Story meets You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Lighting by Amanda West splashes the stage with unnecessary floral shapes but leaves dark patches where actors stand. Costumes by Michael Robinson fall into the hot glue and weeping boa feather school of cheap couture. The outfits aren't just bad; they're fiendish.
To add insult to penury, Theatre Three has inserted an intermission into a 90-minute show just to wring additional pocket change out of snack and bev sales.
As they did recently with [title of show] and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Theatre Three has made hash of a fun little musical you'd have thought was goof-proof.
It's so disappointing, isn't it?