Larry Raben and Tracy Lore in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” COURTESY OF ED KRIEGER
Remember the 1920s? You will after seeing the “musical within a comedy” that is “The Drowsy Chaperone.” It’s a relatively new work, this century in fact, that played in Los Angeles a few years back before going to Broadway where it won five Tony Awards, including Best Book of a Musical (Bob Martin and Don McKellan) and Best Original Score (Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison).
Now it’s at the Norris Theatre in Rolling Hills and it’s both charming and entertaining.
Our narrator, simply called Man in Chair (Larry Raben), is something of a geek, a mousy bachelor living in a New York apartment who eludes the intrusive real world by listening to his vinyl recordings of old musicals. He knows all the actors, the various shows they starred in throughout their careers.
One of his favorite cast albums is “The Drowsy Chaperone,” from 1928. After he places the first disc on his turntable, and begins to introduce the story, the characters – almost literally – come prancing out of the woodwork.
This tongue-in-cheek homage to a bygone era is a melange of many styles, a bit of P.G. Wodehouse here and the Marx Brothers there with some Busby Berkeley fanfare. Meanwhile, subplots galore bubble up under the main storyline, in which a glamorous actress named Janet (Jessica Ernest) wonders if she’s truly ready to surrender her career and marry Robert (Eric Michael Parker), an ever-preening debonair young man whom she hardly knows. Frantic, her business manager, Mr. Feldzieg (Greg Nichols), wants her to reconsider, even as he’s pestered by a lovable floozy named Kitty (Noelle Marion), who wants a chance to shine in the spotlight. At the same time, a pair of gangsters disguised as pastry chefs (Jon M. Wailin and Adam Trent) have their own demands for the beleaguered Feldzieg.
The title character, in chase you’re wondering, is not the fellow in his comfy armchair, but a woman (Tracy Lore) hired to ensure that Janet doesn’t have any pre-nuptial contact with the groom. Well, the “drowsy chaperone” (sort of a Dorothy Parker meets Mae West character) is never without a drink in her hand and a more apt description of her would be the tipsy chaperone. Add to this a Dalíesque lothario named Aldolpho (Jeff Max), brought in by Feldzieg to sabotage the wedding by seducing the bride, and you have as much onstage zaniness as any British farce.
From time to time, the Man in Chair picks up the needle – and freezes the action mid-song or mid-dialogue – to offer some commentary, warning us about the hammy acting or the silly lyrics in a particular scene, and it’s a role that Raben – whom we’ve admired at the Norris in other productions such as “The Odd Couple” and “Boeing Boeing” – handles like the real pro that he is, with an engaging sad sack persona.
This production, and I’ve seen it twice at the Ahmanson, far exceeds my expectations. It’s crisp, the timing is on the money, and director James Gruessing keeps the show moving. The live orchestra under musical director Daniel Thomas never falters, and the choreography by Ann Myers is delightful throughout. The songs are winsome and fun.
This show deserves a full house at every performance, it’s that good.
The Drowsy Chaperone plays Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., plus Sunday at 2 p.m., through May 11 at the Norris Theatre, 27570 Norris Center Drive, Rolling Hills Estates. Tickets, $45 adults and $25 for children 12 and under. (310) 544-0403 or go to norriscenter.com.