MBCC Theater’s musical mayhem is a treat

Ethan Mullen as George, Jeannine Barba as the Drowsy Chaperone, Doug Vasquez as the Man in Chair, Abby Carlson as Janet Van de Graaff, and Charles Keppler as Robert Martin. Photo courtesy of the MBCC Theater

Four weddings – and no funeral

“The Drowsy Chaperone” is wide awake in Manhattan Beach

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Sometimes I think the Manhattan Beach Community Church Theater is about to bite off more than it can chew, but then I catch one of their shows and I’m often highly impressed. I guess I shouldn’t be, because this is their 68th year and “The Drowsy Chaperone” is their 90th production. Somehow, to paraphrase one of the numbers from the current production, they keep stumbling along. That said, there are no missteps in their latest endeavor.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” (billed accurately as “a musical within a comedy”) begins with a character somewhat oddly referred to as Man in Chair (played here, and effectively, by Doug Vasquez). He seems to be a mousy, middle-aged bachelor, shabbily dressed, sitting among his memories in his probably rent-controlled New York City apartment. He keeps the modern world at bay by reveling in his collection of old musical LPs. No, not the musicals of the 1950s like “My Fair Lady” or “The King and I,” but those of the 1920s. And now he wants to introduce us to one of his favorites, Jule Gable and Sidney Stein’s 1928 “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

Now, this is also a musical within a musical, because the whole shebang is really the creation of Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics) with Bob Martin and Don McKellar (who wrote the book). This is a zany paean to nostalgia, packed to the gills with subplots, and seeming to tip its hat to such folks as P.G. Wodehouse, Busby Berkeley, and the Marx Brothers.

Man in Chair sets the needle on the first disc and starts to talk about “The Drowsy Chaperone” and its history, and throughout the show his commentary enlightens us as to who played which role and, even better, what became of them in later years. This is all clever stuff, often funny as heck, and one of the reasons this musical is likely to be making the circuit for years to come.

So what’s it about?

There’s this glamorous actress, Janet Van de Graaff (Abby Carlson), who wants to leave the biz and marry the debonair Robert Martin (Charles Keppler). However, theater producer Feldzieg (Bob Walatka) wants to sabotage their upcoming nuptials, and for two reasons. First, he doesn’t want to lose his leading lady, and secondly he’ll be emasculated or worse by two gangsters posing as pastry chefs (Jennifer Marion and Jacob Helfgott). Feldzieg is also being besieged by Kitty, a starlet with a Minnie Mouse voice (Isabella Francisco), who would happily step into Janet’s shoes. Meanwhile, Feldzieg has hired a narcissistic lothario named Aldolpho (Tony Liakos) to seduce the bride, which would presumably scuttle any chance of the wedding going through.

This is where our title character (Jeannine Barba) comes in. She’s a lush whose solo number is called “As We Stumble Along,” which the Man in Chair says is basically “a rousing anthem about alcoholism.” With a martini in her hand (is she ever without it?), she sings such lines as “Seven over-rated wonders/ Seven under-whelming seas/ Six excruciating continents/ Antarctica — oh, please/ Still you mustn’t let it lick ya’/ This planet oh so bland/ Keep your eyeball on the highball/ In your hand.”

Charles Keppler as Robert Martin and Abby Carlson as Janet Van de Graaff. Photo courtesy of the MBCC Theater

The drowsy chaperone is somewhat boozed out when Aldolpho comes in, thinking that she’s the bride, and so he gets down to work… and she doesn’t actually dissuade him.

But that’s still not enough, and we have “the dotty dowager” Mrs. Tottendale (Heidi Johnson, looking more like Charlotte Rampling than her usual self) and the Underling (Bobby Borich, rather unflappable and a bit like Lurch from “The Addams Family”).

There are mishaps and misunderstandings, with best man George (Ethan Mullen, who seems born to star in musicals like this) often in the crossfire. These mishaps, incidentally, happen to the Man in Chair as well. A couple of times his phone rings, raising his ire and of course stopping the show, and lastly the power goes out in his building but… Well, let’s not spoil all of the fun.

The costumes (Jeannine Barba) are spot-on, ditto hair and makeup (Susane Button), plus additional hair, makeup, and wigs (Patty Jarvis). Katelyn Martin is the choreographer and Doug Vasquez the co-choreographer. Ellen “Weezie” Steinmetz did the vocal directing. Dale Townsend headed up the set construction.

Special acknowledgement goes to director Lawrence Moreno and musical director and conductor Dave Boyer. It’s a little too easy to overlook the orchestra and their determination to make this show really come alive. What’s a musical without the music, right?

If you’ve seen “The Drowsy Chaperone” in a larger production you may notice that in this show Trix the Aviatrix (Adrienne Fairley) doesn’t bring her bi-plane down from the rafters, and that “The Enchanted Nightingale” (accidentally placed on the turntable after Side One of “The Drowsy Chaperone”) is depicted in images and not by real actors in elaborate Chinese costumes. But you won’t miss that. What I did miss, however, were the pastry chefs as identical twins. In the original Broadway cast they were portrayed by brothers Garth and Jason Kravits, and in this sense Helfgott and Marion, though funny, don’t quite cut the eclair.

But I’m quibbling, or maybe nibbling, because this is a very enjoyable show with good seats to be had at almost 1928 prices. Some of the actors are new to the company, and others have been around and in other local productions (Francisco, Heidner, and Keppler, for instance, were in “1776,” presented not so long ago by the Aerospace Players at the James Armstrong Theater). Additional performers, in non-leading roles, include Jerry Bennett, Nancy and Sue Brennan, Angela Check, Kelly Gov, Kim Sprucces, and Tonya Stumphauzer.

In the end, Trix the Aviatrix returns and the entire cast flies down to Rio. What better finale could anyone want?

The Drowsy Chaperone is onstage at the Manhattan Beach Community Church Theater, 303 S. Peck Ave, Manhattan Beach. This Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with a closing performance on Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets, $25. Information: mbccucc.org and mbcctheater.com. ER


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