By Sharon Eberson
From a bona fide Broadway legend to a TikTok sensation, The Drowsy Chaperone’s cast is sprinkled with the marquee names, familiar faces and newcomers that are a trademark of a Pittsburgh CLO summer season.
This is CLO’s first production of the feel-good show with one foot in the present and another in the 1920s, as a man (in a chair) shares his nostalgia for the good ol’ days of madcap musicals. It helps him when he’s feeling blue, as he puts it, to relive the goofy gaiety of one particular show, titled The Drowsy Chaperone.
The musical with a show within a show won 2006 Tonys for score, book, costumes, scenic design and for Beth Leavel, as best featured actress in a musical.
The CLO production that opens Tuesday at the Benedum Center includes a glittery cast with familiar names from some relatively recent shows – Clay Aiken as Man in Chair and Paige Davis in the title role.
And it also has one Tony Award-winning member of the Theater Hall of Fame.
Donna McKechnie, 79, the original Cassie in A Chorus Line, returns to Pittsburgh after performing that Tony-winning role for CLO in 1989.
In The Drowsy Chaperone, McKechnie plays the flighty Mrs. Tottendale, a wealthy widow and host of a wedding that takes a song-and-dance-filled ride to the altar.
Kicking up her heels in the ensemble, meanwhile, is Penn State alumnus Jessica Val Ortiz, who has appeared in CLO’s The Wizard of Oz and Spamilton.
If you don’t know her name from her stage roles, you might recognize Ortiz as @jessvalortiz, who has nearly 8 million followers on TikTok.
Her followers connect with her characterizations of everyday situations and people, such as “every cashier ever.”
They are among a cast whose credits range from Broadway to the West End, and from Hollywood to professional debuts.
An example of the former is the loyal Underling, who keeps Mrs. Tottendale’s mind from straying too far off the rails. He’s played by Jeff Blumenkrantz, a Broadway performer who also has a Tony nomination for the score of Urban Cowboy.
Broadway vets abound here: Aiken, for example, made his NYC debut in Monty Python’s Spamalot, and Davis, in Chicago.
E. Clayton Cornelius (best man George) is a Pittsburgh native who appeared most recently in Ain’t Too Proud on Broadway, and Carnegie Mellon alumnus Chris Hoch (the amorous Adolpho) has appeared in nine Broadway shows, most recently the Christmas Carol production that won a handful of 2020 Tonys. Point Park grad Andrea Weinzierl, a Gene Kelly Award winner while at Avonworth High School, returns to CLO as “dumb blonde chorine” Kitty.
Front and center in The Drowsy Chaperone is Penn State grad Katie Mariko Murray, making her CLO debut as ingenue and bride-to-be Janet Vandergrift. Murray was seen last year in Signature Theatre’s Simply Sondheim, an event produced by the Virginia company with special permission from the composer.
Also new to the CLO summer season is British actor Ashley Day (the CW’s Dynasty; An American in Paris in London), as groom-to-be Robert. Brothers Blakely and Parker Slaybaugh are Gangster No. 1 and 2, respectively, answering to TV and film’s Major Attaway as boss Feidzieg. Another CLO first-timer is Carrie Compere (The Color Purple), as Trix.
Among that starry cast, McKechnie, made her Broadway debut in 1961, as a dancer in the original production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. The long-time muse of Michael Bennett also has made her mark on the small screen, with TV roles that include the soap opera Dark Shadows and a stint on Fame.
She returns to Pittsburgh in a season that features CLO’s fifth production of A Chorus Line, a show about veterans and young hopefuls vying for spots in the chorus of a Broadway show.
One of CLO’s specialties is as a springboard for its hardworking ensemble – ask anyone who has ever done a summer season of weekly shows about the pace and the learning experience, and you’ll get a proper earful of both. Some have earned their Equity cards here, and more than a few have gone on to prominent stage and screen roles.
Among the ensemble members making their CLO debuts this season are Alec Ludacka (CMU), Austin Schulte (Point Park) and Pitttsburger Bethany Anderson, who has toured with Bandstand and Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella.
Their ensemble mate Ortiz was a hoot in multiple roles in Spamilton for CLO Cabaret, and now she is in a show alongside a Broadway legend.
McKechnie, by the way, originated the role of Kathy in Stephen Sondheim’s Company, and had a solo dance to highlight her talents. It was to the song “Tick Tock.”
Seems like there has to be a TikTok post in there somewhere.
The Drowsy Chaperone is at the Benedum Center June 21-26. Tickets and details: pittsburghclo.org or call 412-456-6666.