The theater has a power. It’s the power to take the audience members out of their normal everyday lives into a different time and place. For a couple of hours it doesn’t matter what’s on the to-do list, how the workday went or what’s due tomorrow. It’s a time for the brilliant mix of spotlights, scene shifts, catchy music and extravagant costumes.
A bond is formed between the unknowing audience and the characters onstage as laughter, and sometimes tears is shared throughout the room. This strong bond wouldn’t be possible without the work of a long list of characters. From the starring actor to the set constructor, each serves an important role in telling a tale.
Both Drake students and alumni are involved with producing the story of the Des Moines Playhouse’s current production, “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
The show is an upbeat freefall musical within a comedy, narrated by a sarcastic, nameless aficionado, Man in Chair (Jim Benda). A bombshell Broadway beauty attempts to marry her “true love,” while the rest of the eclectic cast flaunts through each scene. The wedding seems as if it will never happen with the antics of her wealthy, loopy mother, two gangsters disguised as pastry chefs, a self-confessed Latin lover boy, a theater producer with an agenda, a wannabe Broadway star and the supporting best man. The chaperone, who is chosen to watch and assist the bride on her big day, is fabulously tipsy throughout the hour-and-a-half production.
The almost month-long production has taken tenacious support in all areas of the theater and three Drake University students took starring roles. “The Drowsy Chaperone” challenge required them to jump back to the days of prohibition, flappers, dapper men and an ambiance of moxie.
Out of class and into the spotlight: Role of the student actor
In her blonde wig, with a high-pitched voice and wide smile, Alexandra Beem knows what it’s like to be fully in character. Her character, Kitty, is a desperate second-string actress vying for the center-stage spot that the main character, Janet Van De Graaff, will leave behind when she gets married.
“Not only is it the perfect script, I mean, I struggle every night trying not to laugh, it’s just so funny,” Beem said. “But, we have a great cast, an absolutely amazing set and gorgeous costumes to play in. It’s been a joy to work with everyone I’ve gotten the chance to work with so far in this production.”
The Drake junior vocal performance major and musical theater minor, found her future aspirations after watching “Cats” as a child and then later found her niche at Drake after taking vocal lessons with Professor Leanne Freeman-Miller in high school. Beem also starred in her first Des Moines Playhouse production this summer as Mrs. Potiphar in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”
It can be a lot for students to be involved with a time-intensive production, university productions and still have time for homework and this crazy thing called sleep, but Beem is inspired by the audience’s reaction to a show.
“Obviously, it takes a balance to level the two worlds, which is hard to master at first,” Beem said. “We only get so much time in a day, but I figure I may as well spend that time doing something I love, right?”
Other students create onstage energy that radiates off the stage as well, such as Jim Kolnik, who dances and sings as an undercover gangster.
The biochemistry and molecular biology senior Drake student found a love of theater starring as Linus in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” back in high school. Kolnik is also a musical theater minor, and found that “Drowsy Chaperone” was a good production to mature with.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot as an actor because I was working with all these older adult members whom I learned a lot from and who I hoped learned a lot from me,” Kolnik said.
Kolnik said it was especially hard to balance school with rehearsals that run up to three-and-a-half-hours at times. Like most of the people involved with the production, it’s audience support that helps propel the success of the show.
“To hear that non-stop laughter is so great and helps give me my energy on stage,” Kolnik said.
Beem and Kolnik starred alongside Drake alumnus, and scene-stealer, Nick Toussaint as the frisky fraternizer named Adolofo.
“It’s been a joy to work with everyone I’ve gotten the chance to work with so far in this production,” Beem said.
Hammering out the details: View from the set designer
Tim Wisgerhof looks at the stage from a different creative point-of-view. The 1988 Drake graduate in theater has worked on all sorts of sets from the Des Moines Theater to New York, in theater, film and television (including MTV). He also comes with a 10-year background as the senior creative director for Saks 5th Avenue. “Drowsy Chaperone” was the first set he has worked on since moving back to the Midwest.
“One of the reasons I came back to Des Moines was so I could be more intimately involved in the process,” Wisgerhof said. “Not just designing and managing a project, but also building it, engineering it and painting it.”
Toward the end of the show there is an epic airplane that could just about take flight off the stage. Innovative designs like this, along with tree foliage and moving walls, all within the setting of a man’s apartment, help to make the story complete. Like the actors, Wisgerhof likes being involved with the humanistic connection to the theater.
“It is really exciting to be involved in creating something three-dimensional with a group of people, where people are able to touch it and shape it and be physically a part of making it real,” Wisgerhof said. “And then to put that creation in front of real live people, it just doesn’t happen that often anymore, so to be able to make a living getting to do that is a real gift.“
This gift takes time. And a lot of it. Wisgerhof said he’s spent close to 1,000 hours total with the design and actual production of the “Drowsy Chaperone,” but that it’s a “labor of love.”
Spreading the word: Through the eyes of an intern
With a community theater like the Des Moines Playhouse, a large driving force behind success is marketing and public relations. Drake University senior journalism major Jessica Webb sees the hurdles of promoting a more obscure show firsthand with her job as the Playhouse marketing intern.
“The most challenging thing is getting the buzz out about the show that’s not a big name,” Webb said. “Getting the community aware is key to success of any smaller production.”
Webb works mainly with her boss and then with a larger marketing committee, to dream-up the best ways to promote each new show, from writing press releases, putting together programs, advertising around the local area and using social media.
With the “Drowsy Chaperone,” and with any Playhouse production, this driving force is a large team effort. The main team is small, with only 10 full-time employees, and the close-knit group is what creates the special interconnected ambiance throughout the theater.
“My co-workers make every day a lot of fun,” Webb said smiling. “The theater environment is something I’m not used to, and it’s the exciting, everyday challenge of finding new things to do that keeps it interesting.”
The audience usually doesn’t see the larger team of volunteers that make the Playhouse productions run smoothly. Webb said she’s grateful for the base of 100-plus people that work with the set, lights, sound, costumes, ticketing and ushering for the shows.
“The playhouse is a very special community-based environment,” Webb said. “ It’s one of the reasons why I love it; everyone gets along so well.”
She encourages everyone to come check out the Playhouse’s latest production.
“Come see the show. It’s unexpectedly hilarious,”Webb said.
Webb advised to look forward to the upcoming comedy “Duck Hunter Shoots Angel.” The play, about some Alabama duck hunters who mistakenly believe they shot an angel, is by “Tuesday’s with Morrie” bestselling author Mitch Albom and will open Nov. 5.
Whether it’s laughing at the drunken antics of the chaperone or singing the catchy tunes as you leave the theater, the Playhouse is sure to provide an escape. Special discounts for students are available for all the Des Moines Playhouse productions and vary between shows. For show times, tickets and information about the exciting upcoming plays, click to the website www.dmplayhouse.com.
Photos: Connor McCourtney