Community Theatre Shines in 'Drowsy Chaperone'

I don't often write about community theater. It's really a matter of time and space; we have so much good theater here in Cincinnati and not so much space in CityBeat, so I have to make some choices. I also don't have enough time to catch every community theater production — trust me, there are a lot of them. But over the weekend I felt compelled to see The Drowsy Chaperone, produced by Cincinnati Music Theatre at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theater. —-

First and foremost, it's a show that anyone who loves musical theater has to love — after all, it's about a guy who loves musicals. The show is about a fellow ("Man in Chair") who's feeling a little blue, so he decides to listen to his favorite show, a 1920s extravaganza called "The Drowsy Chaperone." As he plays his record (of course, it's a vinyl disk on a record player) it comes to life around him, stopping occasionally as he offers notes about the actors from the original production or about the music.

I also wanted to see this one because Van Ackerman is playing "Man in Chair." I've known him for a long time, first as the publicist for the Broadway Series and more recently as the marketing director for the Cincinnati Arts Association. I knew him to be a trained actor (with degrees in theater from Rollins College and Ohio State), but he hasn't been onstage in 18 years. I hope he doesn't wait that long again, because he was a delight to watch. He totally embodies the enthusiasm of "Man in Chair" for this material, worshipful and a tad silly, quick to acknowledge his lack of objectivity as well as his irritation with intrusions from the outside world (especially an occasionally ringing telephone that interrupts his reverie).

Ackerman offers a masterful performance, but that's not to say he's the only reason to see The Drowsy Chaperone. The performers around Ackerman are top-notch in this well orchestrated production directed by Skip Fenker — Katie Eichler as Janet Van De Graaff, the star actress who's choosing marriage over a career on the stage (her song "Show Off," in which she claims she doesn't "wanna show off no more" while she does just the opposite in larger and larger ways, is a comic gem); Dianna Davis as Janet's chaperone (a role with no function other than to feature a slightly fading singer who can steal the show at the drop of a hat); community theater veteran Wayne Wright as Adolpho (the self-centered Latin lover who is a walking, talking caricature); and Brandon Fox as Janet's silly, tap-dancing fiancé Robert Martin. There are comic bits from Marcie Brooks and Bud Walters (as a former vaudeville act playing a dotty woman hosting the imminent wedding and her faithful if disdainful butler, "Underling"), as well as from Patrick Carnes and Greg Good as a pair of gangsters "disguised" as pastry chefs. Don't ask — it's meant to be silly.

Chaperone is an ambitious show to produce. There are lots of costumes and a complicated set. The dreary apartment of "Man in Chair" needs to come to life for the various scenes in the conjured-up musical, which includes characters dancing in and out through a refrigerator door and an airplane landing during a wedding. David Zlatic (scenic design) and Elaine Mitchell (costumes) make the show look great, and Sonja Hansen has assembled choreography that makes these largely amateur dancers look like pros from the Follies. It all sounds great, too, thanks to Charles Wilhelm's musical direction of an orchestra of 13 musicians and Sarah MIzelle's vocal direction.

The Drowsy Chaperone is as entertaining a musical as you're likely to see onstage this season. The show runs about 100 minutes, with no intermission. It opened on May 6 and has now completed the first of two weekends. Remaining performances are set for May 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m. and May 13 and 14 at 8 p.m. For tickets ($19.50-$20.50), call 513-621-2787 or click here.

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