CEDAR FALLS -- Community theater has the potential to offer an even more exciting and engaging experience than what professional theater can provide. Ironically, amateur productions are fertile ground for heightened aesthetic experience precisely because they lack the polish and slickness of most Broadway shows. Just as not every show on The Great White Way yields a reward worthy of its ticket price, every once in a while, a community theater production will pleasantly surprise and delight its audience beyond expectation.
This is the case with Cedar Falls Community Theater’s musical comedy production of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” The show opened Friday at the Oster Regent Theater.
What makes this production so enjoyable is its winning and talented cast. With few exceptions, the actors assembled by Director Gary "Bum" Baumgartner reveal the most compelling, attractive and human aspects of themselves through their respective characters. The audience falls in love with the actors as their characters struggle either to ensure or sabotage the impending marriage of leading man Robert to his hopeful bride, Janet.
As the gently neurotic Man in Chair comments, "That's the plot." Played simply and tenderly by University of Northern Iowa theater professor Steve Taft, he enjoys pointing out the musical’s glaring absurdities, such as its ridiculously thin plot. The Man also defends the work by reminding his audience that the purpose of the show is fun, a mission that he and the company achieve spectacularly.
Taft's Man in Chair, a warm and amiable narrator, welcomes the audience into his small apartment to share the experience of listening to a recording of his favorite, though outdated, musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Corny, schticky and even slightly offensive at times, the fictitious play-within-a-play serves as time capsule: a treasure trove of worn-out gags, forgotten tunes and stars whose lights dimmed long ago. Man in Chair brings them to life again with the scratch of a needle on vinyl.
Taft drives the show with great joy and subtle pathos, intermittently stopping the record to provide commentary. He builds rapport with the audience, communicating not only his enthusiasm for musical theater, but also his loneliness. His worn recording of perhaps the cheesiest musical ever devised is an effective, if temporary, salve.
CFCT veteran Kristin Teig Torres, who plays the eponymous Chaperone, shows off her impressive vocal talent as she belts out the rousing anthem, “As We Stumble Along,” in all its sentimental glory. Teig Torres’s Chaperone is not, however, the only stock character entertainingly brought to life; the show is brimful of conventions and archetypes.
One of the most notable and dynamic is the swarthy, arrogant, dashing Latin lover, Adolpho, played dexterously by the enormously talented Aaron DeSantiago. DeSantiago’s rich and fathomless voice electrifies the crowd in his rendition of the hilarious “I am Adolpho.” The actor’s vocal control is matched only by his physical grace and agility.
Though the Chaperone is immediately willing to succumb to the charms of the obsessive seducer, he spends the entire song ensuring she is clear on the spelling and pronunciation of his name. Deceptively silly and extremely difficult to pull off, this thrilling scene appears easy due to the strengths of these performers.
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Meghan Reilly, as dazzling starlet and bride-to-be Janet Van De Graff, displays her considerable abilities in a highly professional performance. Reilly shows off her prowess as both a dancer and comedienne, particularly in the ironic tune, “Show Off,” throughout which she repeats the refrain, “I don’t want to show off no more!” while singing, dancing, somersaulting and quick-changing in and out of several revealing and bejeweled costumes. She even turns household items into musical instruments after tumbling through Hula Hoops.
High schooler Sam Lubs charms as Robert. Convincing as the groom, he turns in a funny, skilled performance as the groom. Not only does he believably woo and match energy with Reilly’s Janet, but he does so on roller skates and blindfolded. Lubs meets these challenges with playful ease while showing off skills as both a singer and dancer.
If the bios are to believed, Lubs and Taylor Vessel as his best man are new to tap dancing. However, they deliver a killer tap number to the goofy swinging tune of “Cold Feets,” which elicited an eruption of applause from the opening night audience as the pair propelled the number to an impressive crescendo. Raw talent, hard work and Donna Baumgartner’s always excellent choreography elevates the number to a crowd-pleasing showstopper.
Some of the show’s most hilarious moments, which elicit the most jubilant audience response, derive from effective comic couplings. Real-life married couple Rosemary and Daniel Gast draw on their off-stage chemistry to portray Mrs. Tottendale and her butler, Underling, who share some of the most playful scenes, songs and schtick in the entire musical.
Rick Johnson’s pin-perfect portrayal of the cunning and opportunistic producer Feldzieg renders the crafty instigator of the story’s conflict as a lovable villain. Johnson’s Feldzieg is clever, alert and willing to do anything to get what he needs. The producer meets his match, however, in Kitty, the dim but ambitious chorus girl played by Stephanie Peiffer, who is adorably funny while holding her own opposite Johnson.
Though “ The Drowsy Chaperone” blazes with star moments and over-the-top performances, the glue that holds it together are the ensemble players — and there is not a “small” actor in sight. Sarah Olson and Grace Van Patten play several roles with fervor and gusto. Similarly, Travis Gratteau-Zinnel and Daulton Rokes, who play gangsters disguised as pastry chefs, add fun and mayhem to each scene in which they appear. Chris Hansen, who shows up for one scene at the end of the show to play the Superintendent, makes an event of his limited stage time.
The actors are ably supported by excellent musicians and effective technical elements as well. From the first notes of the overture, it is clear that the pit, conducted by musical director Luke Overton, is a talented group of musicians. They expertly bring the show to life with fun and lively interpretation of a zany, rollicking score.
Adding to the fun are beautiful costumes by co-designers Jean Carlisle and Liane Nichols, who created beautiful period pieces. Though the set design for most of the show is muted and mundane as a reflection of The Man’s simple dwelling, a surprising and colorful set piece is unveiled in the second act that represents the humble narrator’s success in breaking out of the blue mood in which he begins the show.
CFCT’s “The Drowsy Chaperone” is on stage this weekend.
Local actor, director and playwright Joe Frenna has taught middle and high school English in the Cedar Valley for the past 10 years. He has just finished his first year at Waterloo East High School and will teach special education in the fall.