Saturday, March 17, 2018

"Drowsy Chaperone" hits, "Laughter on the 23rd Floor" hits walls

Posted By on Sat, Mar 17, 2018 at 6:27 PM

click to enlarge Jason Spitzer spins the hot wax.
  • Jason Spitzer spins the hot wax.
The Drowsy Chaperone begins in the blackout with a cranky voice calling out into the darkness. "I hate theater," it says. "It's always so disappointing, isn't it?" Lights finally come up, illuminating an unremarkable apartment and its lone occupant, the Man in Chair. He shares a little prayer before the start of any live performance asking God to keep things short — two hours at the most. Additional requests are just as modest: a story, "a few good songs" and some good old fashioned escapism.

I've felt this poor man's pain since the first time I sat down to watch The Drowsy Chaperone, a parody of 1920's era musical comedies that takes its share of pokes at modern fare ("Please Elton John, must we continue this charade!"). The Man in Chair loves theater, of course. Or what it's capable of anyway. He's just picky. Discerning.

Theater Memphis' take on this instant classic is knowing and no holds barred, with a terrific cast that includes Jason Spitzer as the curmudgeonly man, with Gia Welch as a superstar giving up her career for love, and Annie Freres as the titular chaperone.

There's so much more I could say about this cast and all its performers but maybe reviews shouldn't be too long either. How about we wrap with a classic: Don't miss this one.
click to enlarge MICHAEL GRAVOIS
  • Michael Gravois
I regret that I've been occupied with other stories of late and unable to blog about Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Or, to be precise, I regret that I haven't blogged about its source material Your Show of Shows starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, and boasting one of the greatest comedy writing teams of all time. The roster included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Lucille Kallen and Laughter author Neil Simon among others. Best I can say at this point: Those unfamiliar are overdue a YouTube binge. It was SNL when words like "pregnant" were too racy. But in spite of a more restrictive environment, Caesar's team regularly delivered smart, relevant material. Maybe even too smart for network TV, which always looked to grab the biggest audience possible no matter how low you had to aim.


Your Show of Shows represented an extraordinary convergence of talent and its quirky backstage life has been eulogized memorialized in TV's Dick Van Dyke Show, Simon's Laughter, and the wonderful Peter O'Toole film My Favorite Year.

Like Drowsy Chaperone, Laughter on the 23rd Floor pivots around a narrator. Unlike Chaperone, we're never given that much of a reason to care about this storyteller, loosely based on the playwright. He's just a device to set things up and wrap them up in a show with not much story, but a whole lot of character.

From people punching holes in the wall to running gags and unexpected changes of pants, the conflict and physical comedy in Laughter on the 23d Floor echoes the source material. What it may lack story-wise, it more than makes up for in opportunities for laughs.

Michael Gravois digs into the role of Max Prince, loosely based on the driven but booze and pill-addled Caesar.  With a believable, manic edge Gravois convinces us he's the kind of guy who might write a post sobriety novel titled Where've I Been? But there's no starring role in this comedy, it's the kind of ensemble where one weak link breaks the chain. Gravois is supported by a gaggle of solid comic performers including Jonathan Christian, Brent Davis, and Kim Sanders as various other members of the greatest writers room in the history of writers rooms.

I've never been a Simon fan — an unpopular opinion I know. And structurally speaking, this is arguably one of a prolific writer's most paint-by-numbers efforts. It may not be a great play. But when the characters come to life and the comedy cooks it can be a helluva show. 




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