|Pat Sajak and Courtney Romano. Photo: Kim Bova.
By Lauren Yarger
Pat Sajak puts his spinning talents to work here in Connecticut this month, but this time turning records instead of a “Wheel of Fortune” as he takes on the role of Man in Chair for CT Repertory’s Nutmeg Summer Series production of The Drowsy Chaperone.
Seated in a comfortable chair next to a phonograph, Man in Chair shares his love for old-fashioned musicals and shares his favorite, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” with the audience. It’s a tale full of mixups, mayhem and romance with a well-worn plot and two dimensional characters, he tells us, but he begs us to indulge him and visualize as he puts the needle to the 33 rpm vinyl and is transported from his boring life into the glamor of a Broadway musical.
Suddenly, the 1928 musical comes to life in the man’s living room, thanks to the versatile set designed by Michael Anania. Taking center stage, much to the delight of her biggest fan, is the era’s most famous Broadway actress, Beatrice Stockwell, playing the Drowsy Chaperone (Liz Larsen). She is tasked, Man in Chair tells us, with making sure a bride and groom don’t see each other on their wedding day (and that’s pretty much the entire plot….). They are Janet Van De Graaff (Courtney Romano), star of Feldzieg’s Follies, giving up fame to settle down with dashing Robert Martin (Kevin Jones).
Attending the wedding are society matron Mrs. Tottendale (Jan Neuberger) and her servant Underling (Jay Rogers), Janet’s Producer, Feldzieg (Adam Heller) and his girlfriend, Kitty (Gianna Yanelli), who dreams of taking Janet’s place as star of the show. Also on hand are ladies’ man Aldolpho (Scott Ripley) and best man George (Devin Johnson).
A “B Plot” involves two gangsters (Alex Gibson and Ian Saunders) masquerading as pastry chefs who are in cahoots with Feldzieg to stop the wedding because their mob boss has invested in the follies, which will flop without Janet. Their corny jokes and zany costumes (designed by Lisa Loen) bring many laughs.
The chaperone doesn’t do her job very well, thanks to being drunk and drowsy most of the time. When Robert and Janet meet up while Robert is roller skating blindfolded (don’t ask, just enjoy), he mistakes her for a French girl named Mimi and mayhem ensues, accompanied by tap-dancing, flapper-esque choreography by Cassie Abate (who co-directs with Vincent J. Cardinal) and commentary from Main in Chair as he stops and pauses the recording to enlighten us along the way about his favorite moments, flaws in the lyrics and some trivia about the performers.
The show, with a book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, is clever and a hoot for anyone who loves musical theater (I am Man in Chair, as some friends I have forced to listen to recordings will tell you). A line about stupid people making their living in TV is particularly funny when delivered by Sajak who is in his 30th season as one of TV’s most popular game show hosts.
Some performances stand out: Yanelli as the ditsy blonde showgirl, and Ripley as the self-confident, falsely accented Latin lover. Johnson is engaging as the best man who realizes he has forgotten to hire a minister for the wedding and Amani Dorn as Trix the Aviatrix, who flies in just in time to save the day (yes, look for the airplane in Man in Chair’s living room), lends a solid singing voice that carries the closing number.
Music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison are just the right combination of show tune, ballad and corny – exactly what we people in chairs love about old-fashioned musicals. “Bride’s Lament” with dancing monkeys is one of my favorites.
Some complaints: Sajak doesn’t really exude passionate obsession about the musical and it isn’t immediately clear that the action of the show is being controlled by his starting and stopping of the recording (this does sync later, however). Casting emphasis seems to have been on dancing ability, and while the choreography (especially the tap dancing) is executed well, vocals are weaker and there are some painful notes.
The pace is a bit drowsy at times, but overall the show is entertaining at about an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
The Drowsy Chaperone runs through June 15: Weeknight evening performances start at 7:30; Weekend evening performances start at 8; Matinee performances start at 2 pm. Tickets $10-$45 (860) 486-2113; www.crt.uconn.edu.