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One dud character brings down a promising premise in 'Drowsy Chaperone'

Musical numbers are high points in this Artistry production.

Musical numbers are high points in this Artistry production.

The Drowsy Chaperone won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. The competition wasn’t particularly stiff that year, but even so, the writers of The Color Purple, Jersey Boys, and The Wedding Singer must have been perturbed that Bob Martin and Don McKellar took the prize for a script that runs a clever premise into the ground with a dyspeptic, unfunny narrator.

The idea is that an unnamed fan of musical theater, played by Tod Petersen in Artistry’s new production, decides to spin his well-worn cast recording of a 1928 comedy called The Drowsy Chaperone. The show’s characters leap to life in the narrator’s imagination and onstage.

The comedic Chaperone (also the creation of Martin and McKellar, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison) concerns the newly engaged couple Robert (C. Ryan Shipley) and Janet (Angela Steele). Their impending nuptials are threatened by the interference of Feldzieg (Gregory Adam), a theatrical producer whose revenues could tank if Janet, his leading lady, ties the knot and leaves the show.

There are plenty of supporting shenanigans from the likes of a stereotypical Spaniard (Mike Tober), a ditzy flapper (Berit Bassinger), and two mob goons (Seth Tychon and Christian LaBissoniere) whose boss has a heavy investment in Feldzieg’s Follies. There’s even an aviatrix (Kathleen A. Hardy) — or, as the narrator puts it in one of his many cringe-worthy lines, “what we now call a lesbian.”

The narrator also gets in testy quips about global warming, cell phones, and people who complain about there not being enough women’s bathrooms. At one point, he interrupts his critique of a racist musical from the Chaperone era to gripe about how his cleaning lady puts his records in the wrong sleeves (“Even though I say, ‘No touch records, Carmela!’”)

A more subtle production could tie these cranky outbursts to the character’s generation and to his personal pain, but Petersen and director Michael Matthew Ferrell slow the narrator’s dialogue down to a didactic crawl, lest we miss any detail of a clunky one-liner or a dumb double entendre. That ends up sabotaging the show’s conclusion, which requires us to empathize with this lonely soul.

It’s a bummer, because in other respects, this Chaperone skips along nicely. The musical performers find a nice mix of wide-eyed sincerity and shameless showboating, with leads Shipley and Steele hoofing their way winningly through Ferrell’s sturdy choreography. There’s a missed opportunity, though, for Brittany Parker as the Drowsy Chaperone herself; Parker never really defines the character of the libertine lady who’s supposed to keep the bride and groom apart until “I do.”

The best part of this show is the score, which also snagged a Tony. Lambert and Morrison ably channel the many charms of Prohibition-era musical theater. A tight orchestra under the direction of Anita Ruth sounds big and brassy — to the point that it sometimes overwhelms the stars onstage. In this particular production, you might find yourself wishing the band did that favor for the narrator.

IF YOU GO:

The Drowsy Chaperone
Artistry
1800 W. Old Shakopee Rd., Bloomington
Through September 11; 952-563-8575