Anyone who thinks musical theater is dead, that America has lost its knack for creating it, hasn't been to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center lately. For that's where The Drowsy Chaperone — one of the freshest, funniest musicals of the last 10 years — opened last Friday.
At the 2006 Tony Awards, Chaperone lost the big prize to Jersey Boys but won awards for Bob Martin and Don McKellar's clever book and for Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison's infectious score. The awards are well-deserved, for the show manages to pull off the impossible: Poking fun at those old Broadway musicals while sending them a big mushy Valentine.
I don't know how director Cory Moosman did it, but I've rarely seen a show this flawless on opening night. The jokes zinged. The dances dazzled. And the performers were all at the top of their game.
As noted last week ("Nothing Drowsy here," 7 Days to Live), the production marks the official local acting debut of FAC producing artistic director Scott RC Levy. (His unofficial debut came in A Christmas Story, when he filled in for ailing actor Jason Lythgoe.) Since Levy arrived in the Springs two years ago, he's raised the bar for every other theater director in town. Here he proves to be a gifted comedian as well.
Levy plays Man in Chair, a fey middle-aged man who lives alone and boasts an extensive collection of Broadway cast albums. His favorite is The Drowsy Chaperone, a fictional musical that came not from Broadway's Golden Age, but three decades earlier, in the 1920s, when hokey story lines and hammy actors were the rule.
As he places the record on the turntable, the overture swells and the cast magically materializes in his apartment to bring the musical to life. At first, Man in Chair limits himself to making snappy quips and sharing arcane trivia about the show. But his giddy enthusiasm gets the better of him, and before long he's frolicking with the performers.
The show within the show centers on Janet Van De Graaff, a vain Broadway star who has quit the Feldzieg Follies to marry the dopey son of an oil tycoon. Becca Vourvoulas is Janet. While she's not quite brassy enough to make a convincing diva, she has a gorgeous voice and shows a real comedic flair in "Bride's Lament," an over-the-top dream sequence in which Janet is tormented by a quartet of dancing monkeys.
"Don't you love that number?" Man in Chair says. "A little Busby Berkeley, a little Jane Goodall."
Desperate to get his wayward star back, Mr. Feldzieg enlists a Latin lothario to seduce Janet. Stephen Day plays the would-be lover to hilarious perfection, bumbling about the stage in a delicious send-up of those cheesy dialect comics of old.
"He was a man of a thousand accents," Man in Chair explains. "All of them insulting."
Also plotting to sabotage the wedding is a pair of gangsters posing as pastry chefs. Last summer, T.J. Norton was one of the standouts in the FAC Youth Rep production of As Thousands Cheer; here he shines as the dumber of the two gangsters, stealing every scene he's in with his rubber-faced antics.
Musical highlights include silver-voiced Amy Sue Hardy (who is married to Indy circulation manager Tim Lambert) belting "As We Stumble Along" — Man in Chair calls it a "rousing anthem to alcoholism" — and "Accident Waiting to Happen," sung by a blindfolded Max Ferguson as he roller skates just inches from the orchestra pit. I sure hope the FAC's insurance is paid up.
Erik Diaz's well-appointed set hides more tricks than a magician's top hat. And the eight-piece band, now under the baton of longtime pit musician Jay Hahn, sounded bouncy and bright, though it had an unfortunate tendency to overpower the vocalists.
With a frothy tuner like this, you know a happy ending is just around the corner. But the genius of Chaperone is that while the audience is focused on the show within the show, another story is quietly unfolding, so quietly that you might miss it. This story neatly sidesteps sentimentality, providing a bittersweet twist that questions how far we should go in pursuing our escapist fantasies.