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REVIEWS: 'Rapture, Blister, Burn' at TOTS and 'The Drowsy Chaperone' at Beef & Boards

April 20, 2015

I’m not much of a TV watcher. So I can’t tell you if the episodes Gina Gionfriddo penned for various "Law & Order" franchises or the one she wrote for “House of Cards” was a strong one.

I can, however, tell you she’s an outstanding playwright. And you can have that proven to you by catching Theatre on the Square’s production of “Rapture, Blister, Burn” (through May 2).

“Rapture, Blister, Burn” concerns a trio of college pals, now in their early 40s, attempting to find a li theory from practice. None of the trio is particularly happy. Catherine (Carrie Ann Schlatter) has achieved academic and publishing success—she’s been a guest panelist on Bill Maher’s show—but she still pines for college chum Don (Clay Mabbitt), who married her former roommate, Gwen (Kimberly Ruse-Roberts). Don still has a thing for Catherine, too, and Gwen thinks that maybe life would have been better if she had gone down a different career path instead of opting for domestic life. Catherine’s mother (Bridget Schlebecker) and a college student (Avery Willard), add multi-generational perspective.

Sound simple and familiar? Not in the hands of Gionfriddo, who understands that just because we may say we want to make a change doesn’t mean we are ready to do the hard work of changing. She understands that feminist theory and feminist practice aren’t often the same thing and that people are both complex and very simple.

But “Rapture, Blister, Burn” isn’t a position paper or sociological study. It’s a rich, meaty play with full-bodied characters and lots of well-earned laughs.

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Theater lovers justifiably lament the fact that nearly every new musical these days is based on something—usually a popular movie. While this is not a new phenomenon (let us not forget that “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” were both based on non-musical plays), the adaptation crutch does seem to be getting close to crisis proportion.

So it does the heart good to see a totally original, wonderful musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” becoming part of the musical theater canon.  It plays at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre through May 10.

This was my fourth encounter with “The Drowsy Chaperone.” The least of these was the non-Equity national tour. The best: Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre’s bar-raising version. Beef’s falls closer to Civic’s, thanks to a second act that fires on all cylinders.

 “Chaperone” concerns an unnamed man (David Schmittou), alone in his apartment, sharing with the audience the joy he feels at listening to old musicals. His pick-me-up choice for the day, a goofy (fictional) 1928 bit of fluff about wedding misunderstandings. As he plays the album, the musical scenes come to life in his living room and, delightful number after delightful number, build to an oddly moving conclusion.

Although some of the characters could use a little sharpening in the first act (and the audience, to be fair, seemed to need some time to adjust), everyone was in good voice, and the show fit just fine on the B&B stage. In supporting roles, John Vessels earned smiles with every appearance as Underling and Alan M-L Wager wrung just about every laugh possible from fool-proof—and very foolish—would-be lothario Aldolpho. Keep in mind, these are actors playing actors playing character types, which isn’t as easy to sustain as it may sound.

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