A Toast to 'The Drowsy Chaperone!'
The Drowsy Chaperone
Music & Lyrics by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, Book by Bob Martin & Don McKellar, Directed & Choreographed by David Connolly, Musical Direction by Nicholas James Connell; Scenic Design, Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design, Seth Bodie; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design, Aaron Mack; Production Stage Manager, Victoria S. Coady; Assistant Stage Manager, Ryan A. Anderson
CAST (in order of appearance): Will McGarrahan, Kerry A. Dowling, Robert Saoud, David Christensen, Brian Swasey, J.T. Turner, Sarah Drake, Ryan Halsaver, Joe Longthorne, Thomas Derrah, McCaela Donovan, Karen MacDonald, Nellana, Ryan A. Anderson; Ensemble: Alison McCartan, Tiffany Chalothorn, Shawn Platzker, Michael Coup
Performances through June 5 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Center for the Arts; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.BostonTheatreScene.com
Allow me to begin with a gush: I loved this show! What better way for SpeakEasy Stage Company to conclude its 20th anniversary season than with the regional premiere of the 2006 multi-Tony Award-winning, crowd-pleasing musical within a comedy, The Drowsy Chaperone? Pepper the cast with the spicy performances of Karen MacDonald and Thomas Derrah, SpeakEasy veterans Will McGarrahan and Kerry A. Dowling, sultry McCaela Donovan and droll Robert Saoud, as well as several faces new to this stage, place them in the capable hands (and feet) of Director/Choreographer David Connolly, and the result is an ensemble production that is anything but drowsy.
When The Drowsy Chaperone rumbled through Boston on tour three years ago, I was not enamored of its heavy-handed silliness that was played extremely broadly to reach the far reaches of the Opera House. However, I looked forward to SpeakEasy's take on it, thinking that a scaled down and more intimate version might better suit the conceit of the show. Quite simply, a die-hard musical theatre fan spins a favorite cast album on his turntable to cheer himself up and the whole extravaganza comes to life in his drab living room. Man in Chair, as he is called, is our theatre critic cum tour guide through the world of the fictional 1928 show The Drowsy Chaperone, eliminating the fourth wall and becoming one with the audience.
In the confines of the 200-seat Roberts Studio Theatre, it works because Man in Chair is the glue that holds it all together and we get an up close view of McGarrahan who is brilliant in the role. He inhabits the persnickety persona of the aging, lonely theatre queen, deftly displaying his eccentricity, but also broadcasting his emotional highs and lows as they ebb and flow with the story of the celebrity bride giving up her career in the limelight in exchange for love and marriage. McGarrahan is a sheer delight to watch as Man anticipates a moment that tickles him, or laments when he thinks a moment is ruined.
M-I-C is the de facto conductor onstage, virtually starting and stopping the action when something needs clarification or editorializing, when his phone rings, when he needs to use the bathroom, or when the record skips. As the spokesperson for the creative team, he lovingly pays homage to musicals in general and American musicals of the Jazz Age in particular. He is neither cloying nor apologetic, accepting the genre, warts and all.
Janet Van De Graaff's (Donovan) wedding day is an on-again, off-again affair as harried theatrical impresario Feldzeig (J.T. Turner) schemes to keep her starring in his show, lest he is forced to give his untalented, squeaky-voiced girlfriend Kitty (Sarah Drake) a shot at stardom. To complicate matters, a pair of gangsters masquerading as pastry chefs (Ryan Halsaver, Joe Longthorne) threatens Feldzeig on behalf of some of his investors. If he doesn't stop the wedding, he can expect to receive a "Toledo Surprise" - not a tasty confection.
Meanwhile, the drowsy chaperone (MacDonald) is supposed to keep the bride and groom apart before the ceremony, but she is preoccupied with her flask and Aldolpho (Derrah), the Latin lover who mistakes her for the woman of the hour. The groom (David Christensen) does his best to avoid his betrothed by donning roller skates and a blindfold (don't ask), but that creates other problems. The ditzy Mrs. Tottendale (Dowling), the hostess of the shindig, needs to be constantly reminded what's going on by her long-suffering servant Underling (Saoud). Yada, yada, yada ...mayhem ensues.
The keys to the success of SpeakEasy's The Drowsy Chaperone are Connolly's fast-paced direction, spot on casting, and pitch perfect acting. Donovan plants her tongue firmly in her cheek from the get-go and, in the manner of her character, never stops showing off. MacDonald (in her SpeakEasy debut) underplays at first, but leaves no laugh unturned in the chaperone's anthem "As We Stumble Along," and Derrah takes Aldolpho's ridiculousness to new heights. The pairing of Dowling with Saoud and the Turner/Drake odd coupling result in some very obvious, but nonetheless enjoyable, humor. Vocal chops abound in this cast, with Christensen, Donovan, and Dowling deserving special mention.
The plot does have a high silliness factor, but is reminiscent of the era it showcases and the book was awarded the Tony. Another of Drowsy's five statues was for Best Original Score, and Musical Director Nicholas James Connell with his five-piece band produces a big sound that will send you out humming and toe-tapping. Speaking of tapping, my personal favorite form of dance, kudos to Christensen and Brian Swasey for their routine to "Cold Feets" which includes lots of classic time steps, falling off and jumping over the log, and good-natured challenges. The entire company shines in the "Show Off" and "Toledo Surprise" production numbers.
The designers also shine, with an amazing array of costumes and wigs by Seth Bodie (the wedding gowns alone are worth the price of admission); Jenna McFarland Lord's set pieces sliding in and out for the musical's locales and an evocative collection of theatre memorabilia in Man in Chair's apartment; lighting design by Karen Perlow that must incorporate periods of darkness and the use of flashlights. Aaron Mack is up to the challenge of creating the sound of an old-fashioned LP, as well as finding a good balance between the music and the voices.
One term I won't use to describe The Drowsy Chaperone is subtle, but, as Man in Chair says in his opening monologue, "I just want to be entertained. I mean, isn't that the point?" For one hour and forty minutes, I smiled, laughed, and tapped my feet, as did everyone around me. And I'll quote one of the Man's last lines for my final comment: "It does what a musical is supposed to do; it takes you to another world." Bon voyage!
Photo Credit: Stratton McCrady (McCaela Donovan and members of the company perform "Toledo Surprise")