Review: Pittsburgh CLO's THE DROWSY CHAPERONE Produces an Unexpected Understudy at Benedum Center

Executive producer saves the show in a once-in-a-lifetime event

By: Jun. 29, 2022
Review: Pittsburgh CLO's THE DROWSY CHAPERONE Produces an Unexpected Understudy at Benedum Center

Everybody in the theatre loves a good understudy story. We love rooting for the underdog, so "the bit player who steps up and saves the show" is one of the most cherished of theatrical tropes. We all know how it made a star of Sutton Foster, Judy Kaye and more recently Max Clayton, but... it's usually an actor doing the saving. What happened at Pittsburgh CLO's The Drowsy Chaperone this June will be a Pittsburgh theatrical legend for years to come, and adds a whole new wrinkle to the classic "actor's nightmare" of performing a part you haven't rehearsed adequately.

Due to a cold I was getting over, I moved my ticket for Drowsy from Tuesday's opening night to the Saturday matinee, which put me in the right place at the right time to see the following extraordinary events unfold. Half an hour after the 2 PM curtain, there was still no show... and then CLO's executive producer Mark Fleischer walked out onstage with news. For undisclosed reasons (though in the age of COVID it's usually safest to assume a possible exposure is at least suspect number one), two of the leads would be out of this day's performance. Trix the Aviatrix, a minor role, would now be played by Jessica Val Ortiz. But there was more. Clay Aiken, Pittsburgh's longtime favorite celebrity guest (and winner of multiple BWW Pittsburgh performer of the year awards despite not living here) was also out. So, at the Saturday matinee, the role of Man in Chair would now be played by... Mark Fleischer. A brief interval allowed for a costume change and some quick preshow prep, and then the curtain went up.

Though he never really sings (he casually sings a bit, unaccompanied, at the end of the show but has no real "musical number"), the show belongs to the Man in Chair. He's our narrator and sort of the protagonist. Drowsy is an unusual "musical within a comedy:" it's the day in the life of a melancholy, sarcastic, sexually ambiguous and deeply lonely nobody (Fleischer, filling in for Clay Aiken), who distracts himself from his malaise by listening to records. The Man in Chair is a devoted old-school "show queen," and his biggest passion is for a forgotten 1920s musical entitled "The Drowsy Chaperone." He plays the record and chats to the audience about the show's minutiae, which he knows obsessively. The irony is, "The Drowsy Chaperone" (the fictional 1920s show, not the actual Broadway musical or CLO's production thereof) is a bad, bad musical. It's poorly written, nonsensical and filled with actors of extremely variable thespianship, from masterful to "in the wrong show" to completely inept. But despite the shortcomings of the material, nothing brings the Man in Chair more joy than living in this frothy, utterly disposable little musical bubble.

It takes extreme talent to play "bad actors giving great performances;" you're moving out of the world of musical theatre and into pure farce when you go there. Luckily, director/choreographer Josh Rhodes has assembled a crack team of very funny triple threats to go the distance. Katie Mariko Murray walks away with her big numbers as Janet Van De Graaf, a Hollywood sexpot playing a showboating Broadway star. Her big number, "I Don't Wanna Show Off," is a circus of "special talent" demonstrations, everything from dance and acrobatics to some hilariously fake stunt work, all while moving between crooning, Betty Boop cutesiness and pure powerful belting to the gods. Ashley Day, as her leading man Robert Martin, doesn't get as much to do since he's playing a famously wooden model turend actor. But his tenor voice is sweet and soothing, and his tap solo and "blindfolded roller skating ballet" make him a pretty pair of feet instead of just a pretty face. Mostly it's the supporting characters who have all the fun here: Broadway legend Donna McKechnie as senile dowager Mrs. Tottendale, brothers Blakely and Parker Slaybaugh as cartoonish vaudeville gangsters, and Andrea Weinzierl as a surprisingly Macchiavallian chorus girl. Special attention must be paid to show-stealer Chris Hoch, as Aldolpho the indistinctly ethnic Latin lover. He's having great fun playing the worst actor of them all, delivering every badly timed take, bizarrely stilted line reading and inconsistent accent (of which he has several) with aplomb. And his song, "I Am Aldolpho" is probably the longest, dumbest, most satisfying joke in the entire show.

Now to the stars above the title! Pittsburgh's sweetheart Paige Davis is instantly lovable anytime she appears, and it's no different here. As the titular Drowsy Chaperone, she plays a boozy belting diva whose star power and legend status overshadows her actual acting talent (sort of an anachronistic caricature of late-in-life Judy Garland). On paper, it's an odd role for Davis, a dancer and comedic actress not known for having an earth-shaking voice. But Davis sinks her teeth into the role, chewing scenery, mugging and upstaging her co-stars (entirely appropriately, as she's playing a shameless attention hog) at every opportunity. Instead of a classic park-and-bark, Davis reconceives her big ballad "As We Stumble Along" as a comic showcase, embuing the role with the loose physicality that has always been her trademark. (A few years ago I joked that her role in a different CLO production left no place for Davis to throw in any of her signature spontaneous kicks, but The Drowsy Chaperone certainly does.)

I'll admit, when Clay Aiken was announced as the Man in Chair, I was a little dubious; I tend to think of Aiken as the poor man's Martin Short, where a little of his intense, arch, fey comic energy goes a long way. (I know he's Pittsburgh's favorite, please don't kill me.) So in a way, I was almost relieved when I heard that his unexpected understudy was going on in his place. Mark Fleischer, on book and with probably more limited blocking than Aiken would have had, got the job done admirably. If Aiken has that intense, prickly Martin Short energy, Fleischer instead brought the Steve Martin vibe: benign, goofy, a little snobby but with the edges sanded off. It was a throughly pleasant performance, a great Saturday afternoon feel in the best way. In fact, with one or two rehearsals more, I could comfortably say "they should have cast Fleischer to begin with, because it works as way more than a publicity stunt or a last minute save." I doubt I'll ever forget the look on Fleischer's face at curtain call: it wasn't a look of joy or pride or accomplishment, but a dead-eyed, exhausted look of "I can't believe I lived through that," like a soldier after battle. Well fought, soldier, well fought indeed.

The end of The Drowsy Chaperone has always been up for interpretation: a small but vocal contingent of theatregoers and critics think the whole show is the story of the Man in Chair's death, as he puts on his favorite album in his last moments and is whisked away to Broadway Heaven by it. I don't think it's anything that melancholic. I think it's exactly what it says it is: a look at the way music and the arts can save us from feeling lonely and blue by making us feel like we are "part of the show." A catchy melody, a good bad joke, a dance routine that makes your heart pound: these are the nature of theatrical magic. The Man in Chair doesn't need to die and go to heaven to be carried away by the end of his favorite show- just seeing it and hearing it is enough to lift his spirits and make him happy again. And for everyone in the audience, it did just that. People will be talking about the time "the producer had to play the leading man" for decades. They should be, it's a great story. But I hope they remember the rest of the show too, and how good it was; nobody left the theatre feeling blue that Saturday afternoon.