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The Drowsy Chaperone: a wacky comedy recalls old theater

Marcia Maslo, who plays Janet Van de Graaff, Dave Jackins  as the Man in Chair and John Congdon in the role of Robert Martin are among the cast members of The Drowsy Chaperone. Mr. Congdon rollerskates on stage. Performances are Feb. 21-24, Feb. 28 and March 1-2, at The Wilton Playshop. (Mary Alice Fisher photo)

Marcia Maslo, who plays Janet Van de Graaff, Dave Jackins as the Man in Chair and John Congdon in the role of Robert Martin are among the cast members of The Drowsy Chaperone. Mr. Congdon rollerskates on stage. Performances are Feb. 21-24, Feb. 28 and March 1-2, at The Wilton Playshop. (Mary Alice Fisher photo)

Take the time-honored premise of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, throw in singing and dancing, including a number on roller skates and an airplane on stage, and the result is The Drowsy Chaperone, an energetic comedy that opened last weekend at the Wilton Playshop and will continue this weekend and next.

Set during Prohibition, the musical features a theatrical star about to give up all to become a wife to a leading man, her barfly chaperone, a delightfully smarmy Lothario, gangsters posing as pastry chefs, a Florenz Ziegfeld type and his ditzy chorus girl, a dim-witted society dame and her snooty butler, an aviatrix and a sentimental narrator — all held together by a script by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, a masterful set by David Cunningham, and choreography by Lauren Nicole Sherwood. At the helm of this dizzy ship is Don Bovingloh, a show business professional who over the course of a 40-year career has been an actor, theater director, television producer, and writer.

The play continues Feb. 21, 22, 23, 24 and 28 and March 1 and 2. Evening performances are at 8; Sunday matinees are at 2. For tickets, visit wiltonplayshop.org or call 203-762-7629.

Of last Friday’s opening night, Mr. Bovingloh said, “It was terrific. The response was absolutely fantastic. I had a number of friends come Sunday. They were professionals who’d never seen community theater before, and they were very impressed.”

This is Mr. Bovingloh’s first effort with the Playshop, and it almost did not come to be. Mr. Bovingloh, who lives in Redding, saw a notice in The Bulletin’s sister paper The Pilot that the Playshop was doing The Drowsy Chaperone.

“It’s a favorite play of mine,” he said. “I was a week late but I spoke with Zelie (Pforzheimer) and met with them. That was the beginning. They offered me the idea of directing the show.

“It was not the pay scale I was used to,” he said with a laugh, “but it allowed me to be home during the day and drive to rehearsals in the evening and that was worth a lot.”

The setup is simple. The curtain rises on a man in his home, known as Man in Chair, played by David L. Jackins, who recalls waiting in a darkened theater anticipating the first act, lamenting, “I just want to be entertained.”

He invites the audience to listen to one of his many theatrical cast albums — that of The Drowsy Chaperone — and as he drops the needle, the play within a play begins.

It is the madcap tale of musical star Janet Van De Graaff, played by Marcia Maslo, who is to be married to the handsome leading man Robert Martin (John Congdon). Hoping to break up the impending nuptials is her greedy producer Feldzieg, played by Wilton’s Larry Greeley, with a ditzy chorus girl Kitty (Ms. Sherwood) by his side. Seeing to it that he is successful are two bumbling thugs (Max Helfand and Frank Gaffney). Doing a terrible job of keeping an eye on Janet is her “Drowsy Chaperone” (Karen Hanley) who prefers flirting with the womanizing Aldolpho (Bob Filipowich). Trying to keep the wedding on track is best man George (Ralph Pastore).

Playshop president Zelie Pforzheimer is the ditzy Mrs. Tottendale, who continually exasperates her butler, Underling (Raymond Stephens).

Rounding out the cast are Femi Shabiolegbe as Trix the Aviatrix, Jeff Helfand as the Superintendent, and ensemble members Samantha Wekstein and Alexandria Clapp and Brendan Joyce, both of Wilton.

A love story

Perhaps it was appropriate it opened the day after Valentine’s Day, since underneath the jokes and clever wordplay The Drowsy Chaperone is a story of love — love of the theater and romantic love.

As Janet questions whether she is doing the right thing by marrying Robert, the Man recalls the love he has experienced in his own life and the difficulties, as well as the blessings, it brings. He asks, When things get rough, is it better to leave or stay?

“He paraphrases ‘it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,’” Mr. Bovingloh said. “I love that idea … a commitment to another person to love or stay with someone has a power to overcome the fear of intimacy or fear of commitment. The Man lives alone, but his fantasy (of reliving the theater) takes him away from the dreary reality of his world.

“It does bring up the point that things can conspire to make your life confusing and not as great as you hoped it would be,” he said.

As for love of theater, that message is clear to Mr. Bovingloh.

“The play kind of says what my philosophy of live theater is. First of all, it’s about showing up to be entertained and then ultimately if it’s done its job, it brings something else. Under the guise of pure joy and entertainment, there’s another message.”

With the Playshop celebrating its 76th season, Mr. Bovingloh noted that when it was formed “there was no TV, no Internet, no multi-channels … that caused the popularity of live theater to wane.

“I have a sense that live theater can be an antidote to electronic media. It’s the only entertainment you have to go out to. You can’t do it on TV or film. They are not the same as being there with live people relating to live people.

“I just hope its power can be projected and sustained.”

The elements

Contributing to the entertainment value of the Playshop’s presentation is the live music provided by Wilton’s Brendan Fox, who is both the musical director and keyboardist. He is joined by Tony Leone on trumpet, John Revel on bass trombone, Don Hurta on bass, Nate Dobas on drums, and Joe Meo on saxophone, clarinet and flute.

Mr. Bovingloh called Ms. Sherwood’s choreography “brilliant,” given that she was working with actors who are not professional dancers. “She created steps and a sense of movement that makes it look as if they all know what they are doing,” he said, adding that “she is a strict taskmaster.”

Also “brilliant,” Mr. Bovingloh said, is Mr. Cunningham’s set. “When he initially asked what I was looking for, my instinct was to have a set like a Hallmark pop-up card, where things go up and down and in and out.” Room, both onstage and backstage, is not a luxury the Playshop has, and so director and set designer went for a look “that folds in and out.”

The pièce de résistance is Trix’s airplane, which Mr. Cunningham took great pleasure in creating.

Airplanes have figured prominently in Mr. Bovingloh’s career. A native of St. Louis, Mr. Bovingloh got his start in TV there, working with some big names like Regis Philbin. He moved to Los Angeles but found it difficult to break in to the big time, going on 90 auditions before he got his first job.

“When I teach my acting classes, I talk about the misconception that actors have to have a big ego. You’re lucky if you have an ego left after all.”

Things did work out, and after 20 years of doing a lot of TV, film and commercials, Mr. Bovingloh moved to New York City to reconnect with his first love, the theater.

“I’ve taken a huge pay cut, but I’ve had an experience that’s life-affirming,” he said.

While living in New York, he jetted back and forth to Mendocino, Calif., where he was artistic director at a theater. Finding that exhausting, he made a concerted effort to find work locally.

He moved to Redding six years ago as part of his retirement plan. He continues to work in the theater and also teaches a master class in musical theater.

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