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Theater review: ‘Drowsy Chaperone’ not a play to sleep on

“The Drowsy Chaperone,” which opened Friday at Spokane’s Civic Theatre, is a trifle, an entertainment, one that lets its audience in on the joke, is free with the winks and nods, and benefits greatly from high-spirited performances all around.

The musical comedy, which opened on Broadway in 2006, is a play within a play. It centers on a lonely man, called only Man in Chair (Thomas Heppler), who is sitting in his shabby apartment feeling blue. So he pulls out a record – a real record – and begins to play the original cast recording of a 1928 musical called “The Drowsy Chaperone.” We hear static as the record needle hits the vinyl – “I love static,” the man tells us, “it’s the sound of a time machine starting up” – and quickly the characters of “The Drowsy Chaperone” come alive in his mind and on the stage.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” is a fake, of course. As such, the musical’s writers – book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar and music by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison – are free to send up the conventions of the genre. We have an adorable couple, Robert Martin (Jerrod Galles) and Janet Van De Graaff (Aubrey Shimek); an uptight friend, George (David Hardie); a scheming producer, Feldzieg (Mike Hynes), and his dim-bulb girlfriend, Kitty (Alyssa Day); two comedic hit men (Dustin Sorrell and Eric McGaughey); a “Latin lover” (Kelly Hauenstein); a dotty society lady, Mrs. Tottendale (Karen Brathovde) and her sarcastic servant, Underling (Carl Vincent); and an alcoholic chaperone (Kathy Doyle-Lipe) who’s supposed to keep an eye on it all.

It’s a simple story: Boy and girl fall in love and plan to marry. But, being a 1920s musical, it can’t be simple. There have to be plots and mistaken identities, double-crosses and chaos, elaborate production numbers and nifty tap-dancing routines. That the day is saved by a party-crashing aviatrix only cements the absurdity.

Directed by Doyle-Lipe and Jean Hardie, both longtime Civic players, directors and choreographers, “The Drowsy Chaperone” has a lot of energy and a lot of heart.

When, near the end of the Act I finale, the record skips, the actors skip, too, stuck in a production number groove until the Man can run across the room to replace the needle. It’s a technically marvelous scene the directors – and the company – pulled off with aplomb.

The dance routines are spirited and fun, especially the tap-dancing duet of Robert and George. Doyle-Lipe and Hauenstein go toe to toe as Aldolpho – a man so vain he’s created a dance move to do every time he says his name – and the chaperone, who is rarely seen without a cocktail in her hand. Doyle-Lipe in particular is a deft physical comedian, and she uses her short stature to good comedic effect.

There are some top-notch singing performances as well. As the young lovers, Shimek and Galles both have nice voices, used to good effect in their duet, “Accident Waiting to Happen.”

As all this frivolity takes center stage, off to the side is the Man. Sometimes he’s dancing along to the music from his chair, other time he sidles up to the actors, all the while making comments about their lives, their talents, their performances. He flies off the handle when life, in the guise of a ringing telephone, interrupts his magical memories of a play he actually never saw. He is quick with a biting quip – a sad, lonely drama queen in a button-down cardigan.

It’s clear from the beginning that Heppler takes great joy in this role. He sports a smile a mile wide and dives in with gusto.

Our Man is truly apart from the action onstage, so his role is like a narrator or Greek chorus. But he injects himself into the story – after all, we’re watching a play he’s dreaming up. It’s a delicate wire to walk, but Heppler is up to the task. When the Man breaks down near the end of the play and lets us in on his personal story and the reason he is lonely, it’s an affecting moment.

Of course, the sadness isn’t going to last long. It’s a 1920s musical, and a big old happy ending is required.

After all, couldn’t we all use one?