FROM FATHER, Wis. (WFRV) – Live theater has a way of capturing a moment, of capturing the illusion of something magical. This illusion often fades quickly. But in that moment – wow – it’s a great feeling.
On Sunday afternoon, such elation erupted at the Broadway theater as Birder Players debuted “The Drowsy Chaperone.” The musical is a silly piece of plush on the surface but clever, bright and wise throughout, with nostalgia running full blast.
In the staging, the audience is invited into the home of a man who loves vintage musical theatre. His attraction turns to a kind of lust.
Such is the rapture of Man in Chair (the name given to the character) that he MUST bring his fascination to everyone by bringing his imagination to life.
When he places a vinyl recording of his beloved (and fictionalized) 1928 show “The Drowsy Chaperone” on a turntable, what he hears is what the audience sees.
Not only does Man in Chair’s imagination unfold, but it weaves its way into the fringe of singing, dancing, and whimsical/silly happenings. It is part of what it hears/imagines. And so, of course, is the audience.
In Birder Players’ ambitious production, Man in Chain is performed by local (and state and national) theater veteran Parker Drew.
As Man in Chair, Parker Drew exudes an adoration for a certain style and a flair for lighthearted entertainment. It’s a highly qualified performance – to be charming, delightful and engaging.
The action swirls around a cotton candy story. In 25 words, it’s this: A star of the scene will drop everything for marriage, upsetting her producer and mobsters, but unleashing a bundle of romance.
Given that it’s 1928, the mood is carefree – compared to what will happen in the crash of 1929.
Considered for the star is a gay marriage. Man in Chair says: “Of course the phrase ‘gay marriage’ has a different meaning now.” Man in Chair says many things in such a way that a different meaning is inevitable. In case one wonders if some phrases have a double meaning, Man in Chair pretty much spells them out and confirms that a dirty mind is a joy forever.
All of the characters are cardboard – brightly hued – which is part of their appeal. They’re also dressed to kill, with demonstrated finesse in costume design and execution. The show has a look, that of the affluent class.
The collaborative minds of director Alicia Birder, choreographer Anna Allen and musical director Brandon Rockstroh are busy, busy, busy, elevating characterizations, dancing and song-making to oh-so-swell levels of fun.
Apart from Man in Chair, which is present practically everywhere, talent in a multitude of positions is displayed. This production has many eye-catching performances.
+ Ana Lissa Bakken plays Janet Van de Graaff, a major and super vain stage star who wants to get married. From the start, Ana Lissa Bakken lets “(I Don’t Want to) Show Off” rip. The joke is that, despite what Janet sings, she can’t help but show herself. This includes cartwheels, splits, impossible-to-gag stuff, and big, big notes.
+ Sarah Sjolie Parks is a tall loft and stylish performer as The Drowsy Chaperone. In the song “As We Stumble Along”, Sarah Sjolie Parks features a great vocal that contains a deliberate warble – a satire. The song is also a sensitive callback to Man in Chair at its peak. About the title of the show: The Chaperone (for Janet on her wedding day) is sleepy because she is perpetually plotting – which is a tease of reality because The Drowsy Chaperone floats in an alcoholic haze in the middle of prohibition.
+ Jesse Robak and Bucky Marklein energetically play the groom (Robert) and the best man (George), respectively. The two flew off with song mustard and tap dancing in “Cold Feets.” This piece kicks off the rhythm and liveliness of the show. Tap numbers by volleys of dancers bristling with energy. Bonus points for Jesse Robak after “Cold Feets”: Singing on roller skates.
+ Ann Preiss Gray and Anna Allen play the Gangsters, which are multiple hoof jokes. The two provide mirror image, tightly timed moves as they announce danger before getting drawn into a showbiz duet. The creators of the series must have laughed a lot while inventing them.
+ Alex Sabin is another laugh-maker as Aldolpho, a stereotypical Latin lover who sings and moves with all the nuances that hormones inspire. Grand gestures and nuance fill his Aldolpho persona, with big sweeps from his matador cape.
+ Susan Elliott and Michael Ajango as Mrs. Tottendale and the fastidious butler Underling, respectively, in one scene, set up a vaudeville routine that serves as a reminder of how wacky and inane, yet well-timed, these things were.
+ Warren Elliot as Feldzieg and Mikaela Torbenson as budding star Kitty often team up as the show’s producer and her tootsie — and the two often team up with others along the way.
+ Brianna Zawada arrives late as Trix the Aviatrix – complete with jet plane – to lead happy wedding festivities with the company in “I Do, I Do in the Sky.”
There’s a lot of team in this production – a lot of players who do double duty behind the scenes to bring the production to life. The credits below show plenty of signs of multi-tasking and the kind of desire found in Birder Players.
At the start of the show, Man in Chair talks about the era of his beloved musical theater show evoking “a world of color, humor and romance.” All of this is happening as this show within a show unfolds. Man in Chair hits a note of melancholy, followed by this suggested theme: Enjoy.
Operating time: Two hours, 14 minutes
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. from March 3 to 5
Creative: Music and lyrics – Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison; book – Bob Martin and Don McKellar; producer, director – Alicia Birder; musical director – Brandon Rockstroh; choreographer – Anna Allen; lighting design – Jeffery James Frelich Jr.; sound design – Samuel Sedenquist; stage manager – Jenna Peterson; assistant manager – Sunnie Grahn; set design – Warren Elliott; scenic artist – Susan Elliott; hair design – Daniel Pagel; hair design assistant – Molly Matyas; makeup design – Lois Gegare; Wardrobe Coordinators/Designers – Janet Ajango, Ann Preiss Gray, Jolee Jackson, Kathy Jagemann, Sam McKenzie, Sandy Melroy; props team – Susan Elliott, Warren Elliott, Ann Preiss Gray, Ritter Leeph, Beth Remmers-Jensen; set construction – Warren Elliott, Jon Jensen, Jack Rhyner, Jesse Robak, Jim Sanders, Bill Sands, John Selinsky
Cast (in order of appearance):
Man in a Chair – Parker Drew
Mrs. Tottendale – Susan Elliott
Underling – Mike Ajango
Robert Martin – Jesse Robak
Kitty – Mikaela Torbenson
Gangster 1 – Ann Preiss Gray
Gangster 2 – Anna Allen
Aldolphe – Alex Sabin
Janet Van de Graaff – Ana Lissa Bakken
The Sleepy Riding Hood – Sarah Sjolie Parks
Trix the Aviator – Brianna Zawada
Superintendent / Ensemble – Tory Ortscheid
Ensemble – James Marker, Tory Ortscheid, Beth Remmers-Jensen, Brianna Zawada
Crew Set – Ritter Leeph, London McKenzie, Madeline Schneider
musical numbers (recorded soundtrack)
Overture – Man in a Chair
“Disguises” – Company
“Cold Feet” – Robert, George
“Wedding Bells No. 1” – George
“Show Off” – Janet, Company
“Show Yourself” (Again) – Janet
“As We Stumble” – Sleepy Riding Hood
“Aldolpho” – Aldolpho, Sleepy Riding Hood
“Accident Waiting to Happen” – Robert, Janet
“Toledo Surprise” – Gangsters, Feldzieg, Kitty, Mrs. Tottendale, Company
“Act I Finale” – Company
“Message from a Nightingale” – Gangsters
“Bride’s Lament” – Janet, Company
“Love is Always Lovely” – Mrs. Tottendale, Underling
“Wedding Bells No. 2” – Trix, George, Company
“I Do, I Do in Heaven” – Trix, Company
“Finale Ultimo” with “As We Stumble Along” – Company
FOLLOWING: “Forever Plaid”, from June 2 to 11.
THE PLACE: The Broadway Theater is a 154-seat, 3,000 square foot facility located at 123 S. Broadway on the east side of the Fox River in De Pere. The building began life as the Majestic Theater around 1930, and a certain aura of that era remains. The space is essentially a “black box” performance space tailored to the needs of a specific production. The rectangular space features a high arched ceiling composed mostly of its original patterned tin, painted white. The stage is set up on a long leg of space. For “The Drowsy Chaperone”, the Man in Chair’s living quarters are located at the back of the stage. Along with his chair, record player and phone stand sits a fridge that converts into an entrance for the record characters to come to life. The performances spread along the various levels to the main level of the seating area. The action is often up close and personal. The theater is the venue for performances and rehearsals for the young Birder Studio of Performing Arts and the adult Birder Players, and it is another option for other entertainment activities.