As we stumble along on life’s crazy journey, let us give thanks for Jessica Sarkisian and Good Company Players. They make us laugh. A lot.
And laughing, along with loving, is what makes life worth living.
Why single out Sarkisian? Because she has the good fortune to play the title character in “The Drowsy Chaperone,” the supremely silly and accomplished musical theater experience now on stage at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater. It isn’t just luck on Sarkisian’s part, of course: She brings to the role a wonderful voice, a crackling good sense of comic timing, a sardonic expression that could curdle almond milk, and an expert ability to approximate a slow-burn of low-level inebriation throughout a two-and-a-half hour show. (Either that, or she’s constantly sipping real vodka backstage.)
When Sarkisian gets to the big finish in “As We Stumble Along,” her first-act show-stopper of an anthem, my favorite moment was an expertly rendered circular-path wobble in time to the music, rather like a drunken dosey doe. It’s as if her brassy vocals were saying “I’m sober enough not to slur my words,” but her feet were declaring, “I’m permanently buzzed.” I consider it a fairly magnificent accomplishment.
Good Company in 2011 first presented “The Drowsy Chaperone” — a clever “show within a show” set in 1920s Prohibition about a society wedding gone awry –and I loved it then. And, yes, I love it again this time around.
Granted, I’m hopelessly biased. I’m in over my head when it comes to “Drowsy Chaperone” for the simple reason that I think it’s one of the funniest Broadway shows ever written. Can I slip on my dispassionate critic hat and not crack a grin as I assess the merits of this production? Probably not.
Then again, one of the hardest things to overcome in theater is impossibly high expectations. Sit me at a performance of “Chaperone” and ask me what I think, and it’s a guarantee: If a moment lags, if a performance doesn’t measure up, if a directorial decision distracts, I’ll be the first to wince.
I never, ever, winced. I was too busy grinning.
Director Denise Graziani is able to recreate the magic the second time around. She does so firstly by relying on three original cast members reprising their roles: Emily Pessano, who plays the spunky heroine, Janet Van De Graaf, with a wink, pout and a beautiful Broadway belt; Laurie Pessano, recreating Mrs. Tottendale, the deliriously dippy hostess; and the pièce de résistance, Steve Souza, who once again is Man in Chair, the morose yet utterly engaging narrator who relates to the audience his favorite 1920s musical, titled “The Drowsy Chaperone.” (It’s utterly fictional, of course.) As the storyline springs to life in his drab apartment, this anonymous narrator not only offers pointed commentary on the show, which is stuffy and funny and politically incorrect, but also the backstories of the actors who starred in the original Broadway production. Souza’s warmth and wit help the pieces come together.
The “new” cast members join the three veterans to make up a strong, cohesive ensemble. (Everyone in this show is given solos and standout comic moments galore.) I could very well single out every member of the cast for praise, but here are five that I think are particularly fine:
• Shawn Williams, whose expert tap dancing and buoyant performance as George, the best man, lights up the stage.
• Tim Smith, as Robert Martin, the groom. Stellar vocals and a fun stint roller skating while blindfolded help him come across as smooth and likable.
• London Garcia gives a standout performance as Kitty, the not-so-bright chorus girl who wants to be a star. (One of my favorite moments in the entire production is in the song “Show Off,” when Garcia offers Janet a snake to charm. The look on Garcia’s face, something between shock and snideness, is one for the ages.)
• Nicholas Nunez, as Gangster #2, offers smooth footwork and a glib delivery as a pastry chef disguised as a hitman. But there’s also special something here, a sense of being present in every moment, that elevates his time on stage.
• Erik W. Valencia as Aldolpho, the Latin lover. As the show’s most stereotypical character — and that’s saying a lot — Valencia plays Adolpho right up to the limit in terms of broad humor without going over the top.
The production’s creative team is excellent, from David Pierce’s clever set and Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s superb costumes to Evan Commins’ lighting design and Rebecca Sarkisian’s vocal coaching. Even the follow-spot operators (Peter Hartley and Elizabeth Henrickson) get a chance to shine, with a bit of razzle-dazzle every time Valencia caws his trademark “Whaaaat?” Kaye Migaki’s choreography also excels.
With its insider references to musical theater tropes and nearly non-stop onslaught of puns, sight gags, sly contemporary digs and silly asides, “The Drowsy Chaperone” manages to both poke fun at the genre and also lovingly embrace it. But the the show is more than just a goof. There’s something tender and melancholy about Man in Chair’s relationship to the world, something in which he seems a little out of sync, and the charm and comfort of an outdated Broadway show is his way to reconnect with humanity. I’d go so far as to say we’re all the Man in Chair at some point in our lives, and the ability to find some sort of salve to put on our psychic wounds is one of the keys to remaining reasonably well adjusted in a demanding (and sometimes very dark) world.
Which is why the Drowsy Chaperone (the character, not the show) is such a keeper. Yes, she stumbles along. But she keeps going. And laughing. And loving. Whatever you’re imbibing these days, whether it’s sparkling water or champagne, let’s raise our glasses and drink to that.
“The Drowsy Chaperone,” runs through Nov. 12, Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave. Tickets: $32-$60.
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