Review: Civic’s ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’

 In 2009, when I saw the national tour of “The Drowsy Chaperone” at IU Auditorium, I wrote:

“…I'm speculating that future productions at Beef & Boards, Footlite Musicals and/or Indianapolis Civic Theatre will be successful ones, thanks to the shows tight book, charming lead character/narrator, gags large and small, and a set of clever, catchy songs…. I'm confident a production by any of the aforementioned three local theaters would be just as fun, if not more.”

Well, my confidence has been gloriously justified by Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre (formerly Indianapolis Civic Theater) with a production of “The Drowsy Chaperone” that not only exceeds in overall quality anything I’ve seen on any Civic stage, but simultaneously puts that national non-Equity tour to shame.

Yes, it’s that good.

The piece, in case you are unfamiliar, concerns an unnamed lonely gent who finds solace in recordings of old musicals. He shares with the audience a recording of a 1920s lark called "The Drowsy Chaperone" and, as the record plays, the highlights come to life in his apartment.

The challenge of the show, as I wrote in my earlier review, is to balance the intimacy of the loner's life–we need to be close enough to connect with him–and the big silliness of the show. That’s where the national tour dropped the ball.

I’m glad I saw that earlier production, though, because it gives some perspective on the outstanding work being done by Civic at its new home, The Tarkington Theatre at the Center for the Performing Arts. If I only saw this one, I could easily have labeled “Chaperone” as fool proof. But it isn’t. Excess ham can spoil the fun of the carefully kitschy numbers. Excess sentiment can tip the balance in the other direction.

But under Ron Morgan’s sure directorial and choreographic hand, it quickly became apparently that there was no need to worry. Actors who I previously thought were “good enough for community theater” shined brightly. No allowances need be made for the work of Vickie Cornelius Phipps as dizzy matron Mrs. Tottendale or Ian Cruz as hilariously stereotyped lover Aldolpho. The sets by David Gallo, costumes of Jean Engstrom, sound by Michael J. Lasley, music director of Brent E. Marty, lighting by Ryan Koharchik and hair and wig work by Debbie L. Williams rival national tours and professional regional theaters. And if one big number, “Show Off,” didn’t come together as it should, blame can be placed in part on the writers who concocted a number that demands nothing less than spectacular showmanship to fully work.

The production’s ace in the hole is actor Paul Hansen, who brings a heartbreaking joy to the lead. It’s the truthfulness and humane humor of his performance, coupled with the knowing writing, that allows “The Drowsy Chaperone” to transcend the genre of times-gone-by musicals. “No, No Nannette,” this ain’t. (For more on Hansen, click here.)

Perhaps the highest praise I can give Civic’s production is that it makes an effective case for “The Drowsy Chaperone” being a great American musical. I love leaving a show wanting to thank everyone involved for a blissfully fun evening of theater. And, if time allowed, I’d go back to see it in a heartbeat.

"The Drowsy Chaperone" runs through Sept. 24. Details here.

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