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Max Reimer is having a ball. As he bounces up and down on his office sofa, excitedly discussing his new production of The Drowsy Chaperone, it wouldn't be all that surprising if he suddenly burst into song.

Brought in this year to reinvigorate and boost the revenue of Vancouver's Playhouse Theatre, Reimer is already making his mark. The Drowsy Chaperone is proving to be box-office gold: Just days before it opened for previews, ticket sales were tracking second only to 2002's Fiddler on the Roof - the Playhouse's all-time bestselling show.

No wonder he looks like the proverbial cat that got the cream. This is the only production in the current season that the new artistic director picked and is directing himself - not a bad way to start. "I was hoping for success, of course, but this is surpassing my wildest dreams - this is astounding."

The Playhouse's version will be the first independent production of Bob Martin and Don McKellar's runaway hit show that began as a private skit at an engagement party. It then developed into a fringe show before making it big in Toronto, and won five Tonys for the 2006 Broadway production. It received great reviews (if an aborted run) in London's West End, before touring the United States over the past year.

The story is simple: The Man in Chair puts on a recording of his favourite musical - The Drowsy Chaperone - which comes to life in his living room.

Reimer saw the play performed for the first time just a few weeks ago, in Seattle - after the sets and costumes for the Playhouse production were already done. He says there were things that surprised him about the onstage rendition - but he was delighted to see how easily a contemporary audience accepted the style of the 1920s.

For Reimer, the key to a successful run in Vancouver is the casting. He will not, he insists, cast anyone simply because they are a "name" - they have to be able to do the job. "Singing and dancing is not subjective," he says. "You either can hit the note, or move your feet properly, or you can't - and I have no interest in seeing anything other than perfection."

More controversially, he has not stuck by an unwritten Playhouse rule to employ only local actors. What is written, he notes, is a mandate to nurture and develop artists in the region, which - he argues - does not preclude employing actors from around the country.

"I still want to nurture local talent," he says. "So I will continue to glance in that direction - but only glance. In the end, I want the very best, so I will not put restrictions on myself."

The Drowsy Chaperone has a cast to die for, he boasts. In the title part is Gabrielle Jones, a veteran of the Shaw and Stratford festivals with a number of musicals from Follies and A Little Night Music, to The Boy Friend and Les Misérables on her résumé. Another national musical theatre regular, Thom Allison, takes to the boards as Adolpho, the dastardly lothario employed to derail the marriage of the play-within-a-play's starlet, Janet van der Graaff, played by local actress Debbie Timuss. As Janet's real beau, Robert Martin, is Laird Mackintosh - whose impressive credits include seven seasons at Stratford and 10 productions for Opera Atelier.

(In a behind-the-scenes romance, Mackintosh's new wife and two-time Tyron Guthrie award-winner, Dayna Tekatch, is the Vancouver production's choreographer.)

"I have been patting myself on the back," Reimer beams.

If there's an air of smugness, one can hardly blame him. His appointment generated some backbiting around the city, with commentators voicing concerns that in order to drive the theatre's subscribers up, the content would have to be dumbed down.

"Being populist is a big negative, isn't it?" he says, throwing his arms wide across the couch with a sigh. But his decision to mount Drowsy instead of The Wizard of Oz "was the opposite of dumbing down - we went to a more intelligent play, a more challenging play in terms of sales, and something for adult sensibilities, not children. And it's selling better than ever."

This is clearly a touchy subject for Reimer, whose 12-year tenure at Hamilton's Aquarius Theatre saw an increase in subscribers to 8,000 from 5,000.

"And what did I do there?" he asks, before offering the answer himself. "I did 99 Canadian plays in 12 years, 51 of them on the main stage. No artistic director of an A-category theatre can claim that, and that is my ace in the hole." . The Drowsy Chaperone runs at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre from Friday through Dec. 27 (604-873-3311).

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