Musicals are a peculiarly American theater style, an outgrowth of the popular, humorous and often satirical Gilbert and Sullivan-style operetta format that tells a story in song, but without the stuffiness and conventions of a classical opera. It employs contemporary music and themes as in “Rent”, an update of the Puccini’s “La Bohéme”.
Trust Americans to look for a more casual, fun theater model employing music, singing, and dancing in a production. This characteristic independence and individuality are prized by a peculiarly American tradition fosters deviations from classical traditions.
In 1994 Tacoma Musical Playhouse (TMP) was founded as a non-profit theater, dedicated to filling the empty niche of full-time musical community theater in the Puget Sound region. The founders of TMP, Managing and Artistic Director Jon Douglas Rake and Music Director and Business Manager Jeff Strvtecky, first staged shows in the Annie Wright Kemper Center and a church basement before moving to its current permanent home in the former movie house the Narrows Theater.
As its reputation and company grows, TMP is community theater at its best, improving every year in voice and dance talent, and choosing newer, more challenging works to mount.
In 2002 TMP bought the theater and shopping center it’s in and began expansion into two adjacent rental units, developing a new entrance and lobby with concessions, much needed new patron bathrooms, and enlarging the backstage area by installing cast dressing rooms, bathrooms and green room. Costume storage, set construction and rehearsal space are also in the enlarged backstage area.
TMP instituted a Behind the Curtain event on the Sunday before the first weekend of a new production to informally acquaint theater goers with unfamiliar new or even classic plays, to introduce them to the performers and to give them a sample of the upcoming production. This is a marvelously generous way to generate interest in the upcoming production, as well as a way to whip up a frenzy of promotion among the audience’s friends and family and, ultimately, to sell more tickets so more productions can be mounted even more successfully.
The upcoming production of “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a wonderfully funny production. The music is catchy and the lyrics are sometimes silly, OK, oftentimes silly, OK, mostly always silly (like Monkey on a Pedestal) but the silliness of the lyrics is placed like glittering jewels in a necklace of the true gold of the music.
The production originated from a skit presented by friends at a stag party before the real Robert Martin and Janet Van de Graaff got married. Martin took the original idea and worked it into a short production for the Toronto Fringe Festival, where it attracted lots of notice and found production friends. It was reworked several times and ultimately ended up on Broadway for a two year run and on international stages. An interesting note is that when the musical toured in Australia, Geoffrey Rush, who plays the speech therapist in The King's Speech, played the main character "Man in the chair."
After Broadway, the production rights were first released to professional and touring companies. Then the musical became available to community theaters. As soon as that happened Jon was the first in the Puget Sound region to option it. At the “Drowsy Chaperone” Behind the Curtain, as Jon was relating this story, he chortled triumphantly. A production opens in a Seattle theatre after TMP’s run.
The story begins with a man in a chair (Jon) who tells us that when he gets blue, he listens to his record collection (“Yes, records!”) and it raises his spirits. The record he’s going to listen to tonight is of a gay ‘20s musical comedy, “The Drowsy Chaperone”. (“Gay used to mean happy!”) As he starts the record the play opens behind him in his apartment, complete with sets, performers and costumes.
First there’s a musical introduction of all the characters: Broadway stars, also the bride and groom Robert Martin (Mauro Bozzo) and Janet Van de Graaf (Cherisse Martinelli), the groom’s best man George (Philip Lacey), and the maid of honor and drowsy (read that as preferably drunk) chaperone (Nancy Hebert). Mr. Feldzieg, the producer of the successful show that Janet is currently starring in and will leave after her marriage, is accompanied by a shrill (think Billie Holiday’s Minnie Mouse voice, pushed up an octave and screechier), aspiring singer/dancer Kitty (Sheri Tipton). Hired by a gangland mogul who is producing Janet’s show, two gangsters (Mikey Dela Cruz and Matt Dela Cruz) are disguised as pastry chefs but whose real job is to insure Janet stays with the show. Mr. Feldzieg has also hired an international screen Lothario, Adolpho (John Cooper) to seduce Janet to break up the marriage. The wedding hostess Mrs. Tottendale (Lark Moore) is ditzy or perhaps even on the road to senility but she is protected and watched over by her butler Underling (John Kelleher). The last character, who ultimately saves the day, is Trix, the Aviatrix (Stacy Calkins). The ensemble was also introduced, consisting of Kyle Johnson, Frank Lewis, Galen Wicks, Kathy Kluska, Lexi Scamehorn, Leah Wickstrom.
The cast was wonderful at the Behind the Curtain. They were at ease, having a good time and joking with each other and Jon.
The production is so cheerful and funny, the music is so bouncy and beautiful (check out Janet’s plaintive lament), and the lyrics are masterpieces of silliness. Those are the reasons that I want to see it more than once.
Don and I did see it at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle when a touring company came through, and we LOVED it. I bought the Broadway cast CD because I enjoyed it so much. I know, I know. I’m easily impressed by puns and other forms of silliness causing laughter. (Jon was lucky enough to score an actual vinyl record from Broadway - only 2000 were made.)
“The Drowsy Chaperone” runs at Tacoma Musical Playhouse from January 21 through February 5. For ticket and other information, call the box office at 253-564-7863, open Tuesday through Friday from 10 am to 6 pm, or go online to www.tmp.org. We’ll see you there.