by Kevin Shaw | photos by Carla McDonald
(Above photo caption: Jason Spitzer (standing center) portrays a man obsessed with musical theatre and watches his favorite “come to life” in The Drowsy Chaperone at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage , March 9 – 31, 2018.)
I have to be honest. I’m concerned. Deeply concerned. Theatre Memphis has placed itself in a very troubling position. Theatre Memphis continues to lose sight of its intended mission. This “community theatre” has completely forgotten (or defiantly ignored) what it’s supposed to be about. Per the Learner’s Dictionary, “Community Theatre is the activity of acting in or producing a play in the theater for enjoyment and not as a job.” Theatre Memphis is supposed to be more about people coming together to enjoy putting on a show first and foremost, with the hope of it being bearable to watch “second most.” Community theatre is about having a wide range of talent in all areas—some great, some average, mixed with some weak performers (and designers) presenting an “average to good” product for the community to support. If the show stinks, you have to remind yourself you are watching a group of people who have other full-time jobs volunteering to come together for a common goal on nights and weekends. That’s it. Nothing more. Theatre Memphis has lost its way. Starting with Shrek and followed by Falsettos, this “community theatre” is continuing its dangerous ways by producing yet another incredibly entertaining night at the theatre with their production of The Drowsy Chaperone. TM’s bar has been set extremely high this theatrical season, but this production belly’s up to that bar with a tall, overflowing glass of champagne.
The Drowsy Chaperone is a parody of 1920’s musicals and not much else. It’s an homage to the love people have for musical theatre. It’s about sitting alone in the dark, listening to songs (some corny, some moving) and imagining choreography that can make your heart dance. It’s about being transported away from your ordinary life to a world where anything’s possible and all can be made right in the world with a wink and a step-ball-change. It’s about loving musicals. If you’ve ever sat at home alone and been transported away by a record player, this show’s for you. If hearing beautiful voices sing beautiful songs (regardless of the song) while watching beautiful people dance (regardless of the dance) makes you happy to be alive, this show’s for you. Rarely, has a show with a plot, songs and dances that meant so little meant so much.
Gia Welch (right) as Janet Van de Graff and Annie Freres as the title character, the Drowsy
Chaperone, in this musical inside a comedy, The Drowsy Chaperone.
Heard of a triple threat (great singer, dancer and actor)? This show’s got a quintuple threat in Jordan Nichols. If this has ever happened before on a Memphis stage, I’m not aware, but not only does Nichols, direct and choreograph this show (with his professional/personal partner Travis Bradley), but he also acts, sings and dances in it—all masterfully! This “Tommy Tune” of the Memphis stage oozes creativity in every way as a director/choreographer/performer. He has assembled an amazing cast of talented performers and technicians without a weak link to be found. As a performer, his portrayal of leading man, Robert Martin is dashing and earnest (in a perfectly two-dimensional way) as he sings like a bird and dances like a pro (his tap dance to “Cold Feets” with Oliver Pierce in Act I will conjure images of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor). His leading lady and bride-to-be, Janet Van de Graaff (who doesn’t want to show off) is handled superbly by Gia Welch—who can sing and dance with the best of them. In the titular role of the drowsy chaperone, Annie Freres follows up her knockout performance in Shrek with another jaw-dropping vocal master class. Her rendition of “As We Stumble Along,” will end any argument as to her being the best singer on any stage in Memphis. Similarly, Breyannah Tillman (Trix the Aviatrix) teases you in the first act with her vocal prowess, only to come back at the very end for the big payoff worth waiting for. The rest of the cast showcases very strong singers and dancers who impress from start to finish, but it’s Jason Spitzer’s interpretation of the Man in the Chair that somehow slightly misses the mark. Spitzer’s Man in the Chair is the “narrator” of the show who asks you to identify with the experience of being transported to a magical world as he plays his favorite musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone” on an actual record player. Throughout the show, he breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience sharing his opinions (good and bad) of the songs on display and the performers performing them. While he’s supposed to be a character relishing in appreciation of the art form, Spitzer, instead, plays the Man in the Chair as more a man to be pitied who leans on the art form to assuage his loneliness. I guess it’s a reasonable acting choice, but such a choice, combined with his affected walk and a sing-songy vocal pattern, moves the character into the two-dimensional world of the observed performer instead of three-dimensional world of the observer.
Breyannah Tillman (far right) portrays Trix the Aviatrix and Gia Welch and Jordan Nichols (left center, left to right) portray an engaged couple surrounded by other who are engaged as part of the finale.
Technically, Theatre Memphis continues to showcase the best this city has to offer with scenic design by Jack Yates and costume design by Amie Eoff. Whatever budget these shows have, it’s clear these designers are using every penny. Once again, Jeffery B. Brewer conducts the biggest and best orchestra in town and the lighting design did what it is supposed to do, which is being functional without drawing attention to itself (which in my book is excellent).
The Drowsy Chaperone did what it was created to do—entertain through song and dance. Fortunately, the show provides highly-skilled singers and dancers who elevate the production well above most community theatre standards in America. In fact, I portend you’d be hard-pressed to find better quality community theatre in any of the other 49 states than what this theatre has been offering of late. It’s a standard of excellence that is hard to maintain show after show (community or professional), but Theatre Memphis has proven this season that it’s tapped the talent base in Memphis to keep showing off.
Now through March 31st