The lights come down on the Fine Arts Center production of the five-time Tony winner "The Drowsy Chaperone," and a voice interrupts the darkness.
"You know what I do when I'm sitting in the dark waiting for the show to begin?" asks the Man in the Chair (Scott RC Levy). "I pray. Oh, dear God, please let it be a good show."
Wow, I thought. A surprise. In a musical. And that was just the beginning of two hours of clever, smart, layered and yes, very, very funny and just about flawless performances. Plus, there's synchronized tap dancing!
It may look pretty straightforward, but "The Drowsy Chaperone" is something of a twofer: the eponymous fictional musical and the play that encompasses it.
The Man in the Chair sets it all in motion by dropping a needle on the original recording of one of his mother's favorite musicals, "The Drowsy Chaperone," turning his drab but cozy apartment into the kind of boy-has-girl, loses-girl, gets-girl-back plot line that drove every Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers backstage musical.
Along the way, we encounter nearly every stereotype of the form: a popular showgirl (Becca Vourvoulas) who leaves show business to marry a wealthy and loving man (Max Ferguson), the shady promoter (David Hastings), the dumb blonde (Casiena Raether), the scrappy sidekick (Zachary Seliquini Guzman), the disdainful butler (Sammy Gleason), two gangsters (Nick Madson and TJ Norton), an aviatrix (Regina Fernandez) and the chaperone (Amy Sue Hardy), who is more interested in finding herself a drink than keeping the bride-to-be away from her groom.
Wearing a smoking jacket, an ascot and an occasional smirk, the Man rules his insular little world from a wing chair at the edge of the stage. He conjures this cotton candy musical world - stopping the action with the lift of a needle - even as he deconstructs, ("I hope you heard that. That's the plot. More or less."), pokes fun ("I've always hated this scene") and waxes on about the amusingly sordid lives of the actors who made it a hit in the '20s.
"Will it all work out in the end?" the Man asks the audience. "Of course, it will. It's not real life. In the real world, things never work out."
Helmed by FAC musical directing veteran Cory Moosman, "Drowsy" hits all cylinders, including a just-right set and period costumes to die for (thanks, Erik D. Diaz and Jason Fangio, respectively).
While everyone turned in accomplished performances, Levy, as the Man in Chair, was the engine that made it all run so beautifully. His delivery of his lines was satisfyingly saucy, his physicality wonderfully broad and yet, he creates a vulnerability that draws you into his story, his world. Kudos to Levy, who is director of the performing arts and producing artistic director at the FAC as well as being extremely huggable in the role.
There isn't enough space to lavish praise on this uniformly accomplished cast. I was knocked out by the singing - with a special note going to Hardy, who blew the doors off the joint with "As We Stumble Along," her big anthem in Act I. It's great to see her on the FAC stage again.
The dancing, which must be good to make this piece believable, was excellent, although Ferguson seemed a bit uncomfortable tap dancing in "Cold Feets." Of course, Astaire might have seemed ill at ease next to Guzman's fluid and effortless dance moves. Once again, choreographer Mary Ripper Baker brought the heat, beautifully conjuring love, joy and other delicate emotions through movement. Kudos.
Some of the most memorable performances can be found in the supporting cast, which were drawn more quirkily than the entertaining leads, Ferguson and Vourvoulas. Stephen Day, who was winning in the recent FAC production of "Gypsy," took on the ridiculous Adolpho, a purported ladies man, who Hastings' producer Feldzieg tries to steer at Janet (Vourvoulas). Probably the least self-aware character on the stage, he posed and preened with the ease of a trick pony.
Hastings, too, carved out the foundational stereotype of such musicals, the obstacle to our central couple's happiness. In this iteration, he's the producer of Janet's box office hit and, thanks to the prodding of two gangsters, determined to derail love and marriage. Hastings, who I'm happy to see more and more often now, was the curmudgeon to end all curmudgeons - sort of an amalgam of Edward Arnold and William Frawley in one double-breasted package.
Norton and Madson, who played the gangsters posing as pastry chefs, could have turned in straight-on caricatures of theatrical vision of a couple of mob hitters. Instead, they mastered some challenging patter and almost balletic staging to craft some of the funniest moments in the production.
If only the FAC's acoustics had delivered with the same specificity of these players. The lyrics of most of the first act were pretty much lost. So, if there was important exposition in those lyrics, I completely missed it.
That said, the FAC production was a joy, the kind of show that you can't help but proselytize about when it's all over.
T.D. Mobley-Martinez can reached at 476-1602.
"THE DROWSY CHAPERONE"
Book: Don McKellar and Bob Martin
Music and lyrics: Lisa Lambertc and Greg Morrison
Director: Cory Moosman
Cast: Scott RC Levy, Max Ferguson, Amy Sue Hardy, David Hastings, Nick Madson, Sammy Gleason, Lacey Connell
Running time: 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through June 2
Where: Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St.
Tickets: $18-$37; 634-5583, csfineartscenter.org