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Theatre Review: The Drowsy Chaperone at The Incline Theater

Capturing the affection of a drowsy audience and waking them up to more than they expected and finally to a love-in standing ovation - that’s a performance.

The show is The Drowsy Chaperone, continuing at The Incline Theater through Aug. 27, a sly salute to the geeks who live for musicals - not just fans who are content with the shows on hand. No, no, we’re talking folks who know something has been lost over the generations, whose collection of original cast recordings go back 100 years and who know everything about them.

That’s Man in Chair, embodied with tremendous warmth by Van Ackerman, who, at the performance I saw, had to meet the audience more than halfway when the show began – and by the end had them sending the love back at him.

He has plenty of help from some of the best musical players on local musical stages, including longtime favorites Lesley Hitch and Rick Kramer in delightfully nutsy comic turns (wit h-u-g-e numbers to belt out).

Give director/choreographer Angela Kahle a standing ovation, too.

The action begins with Man in Chair (he isn’t given a name, defining his anonymity) reaching across the footlights to welcome us to his sad-seeming, studio apartment with a Murphy bed, a telephone he doesn’t like to answer, and, over in the corner, his armchair, a side table, a lamp, a phonograph, and a record collection.

As we all know, there are musicals for whatever you’re feeling, and today Man in Chair is feeling kind of – blue. Ackerman has chosen a unique style of delivery, sending his voice up on some words, emphasizing some syl-LA-bles, and ‘T’s on the ends of others. Together his choices are wonderfully personality defining for our hero.

He pulls out an old favorite from way, way, way back when – The Drowsy Chaperone – that always makes him happy and invites us to listen along. Man in Chair knows it isn’t good – and boy, it isn’t good – but that’s not the point.

In a flash, the ding-a-ling Broadway show is playing out in his room. And as the insane but strangely familiar plot plays out – you stop noticing the surroundings.

Ackerman never leaves the stage as Man in Chair rhapsodizes about the show, shares details about the cast, makes tea, occasionally joins in the action, delights in the temporary respite from our world, and lets slip details about his life that fill in the anonymity to someone we care about.

Glam musical star Janet (Hope Pauly) is planning to quit showbiz to marry Robert (Drew Simendinger), whose teeth are the only bright thing about him. The wedding is at the estate of ditzy but rich Mrs. Tottendale, whose foil is the long-suffering Underling. Helen Raymond Goers and Aaron Whitehead couldn’t be more fun.

Hitch is the title character, who isn’t so much drowsy as a raging alcoholic; Kramer is a Latin lover with a bizarre bouffant hairstyle who has come in from somewhere and his over-the-top performance finds the exact line where another inch would be too much.

Damon Stevens has been a terrific asset to the local theatre community since joining the NKU theater staff and as music director he makes sure the numbers have exactly the right spirit; one flaw: the sound balance was noticeably off in the first act.

Caren Brady’s costumes tell us exactly who everyone is without making us ask. They’re funny to fabulous.

The larger-than-life usual suspects pile up shamelessly: Janet’s producer (Mitch Ruth) arrives with an ambitious chorine (Merrie Drees) to stop the wedding and save his show. There are gangsters (there have to be gangsters!) nicely played as a team by Chris Logan Carter and Tyler Gau. Did I mention there’s an aviatrix? (There has to be an aviatrix!) Joy Rolland-Oba has a ball delivering her big number.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a little show, but that’s okay. You’re gonna love the company.

The Drowsy Chaperone, through Aug. 27. Warsaw Federal Incline Theater, 801 Matson Place, West Price Hill.  7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $29, seniors and students $26. 513-241-6550. http://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?organ_val=21997&schedule=list (with ticket fees)

*Dinner suggestion: Like Indian? Maya’s is new on the West Side, Cincinnati fans knows the menu from the original Dusmesh and Swad. 4486 W 8th St., pick up 8th at the theater and follow it for about 10 minutes. 513-244-7300.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts