BWW Reviews: THE DROWSY CHAPERONE is an Entertaining (Albeit Superficial) 'Romp'

By: Aug. 10, 2012
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There's a question that I know we've all been wrestling with for a long time now.  A question that was answered in New York in 2006 when THE DROWSY CHAPERONE first premiered on Broadway, and a question that the Broadway Rose Theater Company has finally allowed Portland to answer as well.  Can a 1920s Jazz-Age musical in all its spectacle and glory be performed in an elderly man's apartment?  Finally.  And the answer is yes.

The answer is yes but let's just…discuss.  This is a play that generates a lot of momentum because it's incredibly energetic and entertaining, and indeed one could leave it at that.  One could say that THE DROWSY CHAPERONE is-what-it-is since it even states in the opening monologue that it longs to be nothing more than a good, fun, two-hour romp.  So where do we get off holding its feet to the fire?  Well, that's our responsibility as an audience.  Everything should be able to stand on more than just face value. 

And what is it?  THE DROWSY CHAPERONE is a celebration of the 1920s era musical as imparted through a whistle-stop tour of genre conventions.  A fictional theater piece called (you guessed it), THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, plays itself out in the imagination and living room of a reclusive fan, who narrates his personal liner notes to the audience concerning this, his favorite musical soundtrack.  It is self-deprecating rather than deconstructive, a celebration of form rather than 'spoof'.

If you'd rather not sit through my diatribe, then here is my review: THE DROWSY CHAPERONE is highly entertaining albeit a little superficial.

You will laugh.  You will laugh so much and you are right to do so, there are some genuinely funny moments in this performance, the majority of which are carried off by the leading man, Dan Murphy.  Mr. Murphy had a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, considering it was his character's charisma and earnest passion for musicals needed to make this play work.  As an audience we need to feel that even though this is a silly musical, it's worthwhile because it means something to this man whose apartment we've landed in.  Well, we sort of get that.  What we definitely get is a very likeable guide on our journey, and that seems to be enough to carry things along.

The musical direction is very fine, and all of the performers were very competent.  The songs don't really hit that transcendental spot, like in THE SOUND OF MUSIC a few weeks ago, but bear in mind that's not what these songs were meant to do.  These are songs that incorporate a bit of silliness into a musical era that is already considered rather silly, and the performers 100% got that.  They played it with the right combination of cheese, bravado, and talent, and the image of the 1920s musical star came to life for everyone.  I believed it.  I didn't believe the tap dancing.  I believed everything else though.

Lastly, you'll get a good night out.  Whether or not you've ever been involved with theater, for this one night you get to be a part of the gang.  I was concerned about this at the beginning of the performance.  Are these jokes too exclusive for a non-theater audience?  Does everyone have the discourse surrounding jazz-age musicals as a point of reference?  The answer is that everyone is fine.  You don't have to be a theater buff to have access to this content, because these concepts of celebrity, cheesy musical numbers, slightly camp performers, and nostalgia is not foreign to anyone.  I might even go so far as to say that the 1920s was iconic enough as to be engrained in cultural consciousness, and now people have a relative understanding of jokes regarding that decade no matter what the context.  But all that aside: it's fun.  You should go.

Here's my two little…worries.  The first is kind of small.  That self-referential humor I was just discussing?  People maybe needing theater knowledge because the entire text is about theater discourse?  The hyper awareness of performance during the process of performing?  That's called meta-theater, and theater academics love it.  They love it.  They go mental.  I once had a conversation with a director who praised the entire series of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air solely because of a single joke in one of the last seasons in which Will Smith points out that the house is actually a set in a TV studio.  So I become incredibly suspicious when there's so much meta-theater going on.  'Meta' often feels like lazy writing, as proclaimed self-awareness of a text might be the most straightforward way of convincing everyone you're very Postmodern.  I am more concerned, however, with 'meta' often being used without purpose.  If a technique is used that adds no value to the text, then it is a pointless exercise that finds a selfish pleasure solely in committing the act itself, which is masturbatory at best.  I leave it to you to decide whether or not it was worthwhile, just know that it put me on my back foot for most of the performance.

Second issue: every joke is the easy joke.  Like the performance says – it's superficial entertainment and doesn't attempt to be deconstructive – so it's not about to give the audience anything too tough to digest.  But what you're left with is basically two hours of quips.  So.  Many.  Quips.  Some are brilliant, but all are easy, and one begins to realize that this 'easy-road' approach really bleeds over into the rest of the play.  The fictional musical of THE DROWSY CHAPERONE really doesn't even feign at drama.  No discussion is had about why this elderly man needs to find such solace in his records.  The only bit that gets points for not just being a nod-and-wink one-liner is a comparison the elderly man draws between the narrative structures of musicals and pornography.  And maybe I only give that bit credit because I have been TELLING PEOPLE THAT COMPARISON FOR YEARS!  So hey – I'm just as susceptible to the nod-and-wink as anyone.

If this play was just the celebration of superficial enjoyment that it claims to be, then I don't think I'd have an issue.  But it's not.  There's the ending for one thing.  I won't do spoilers, it's a very touching ending, but it's not an emotional dynamic that's present in the rest of the play and so it just feels like it comes out of left field.  The main issue, though, is that the narrative keeps opening doors.  The opportunity to be deconstructive, to provide a back-story for the elderly man, to do more than just take the easy road for the story keeps coming up, all the time, and yet the opportunity is never taken.  A perfect example is of a phone that rings to interrupt the songs.  The man is upset that the phone is ringing, and suddenly questions are raised.  Who's calling?  Why does this man not want to be bothered?  What's he hiding from?  And yet those aren't the questions that get addressed.  In fact, no questions get addressed.  The phone ringing is just a set up for a gag that happens an hour later.  It becomes very frustrating that THE DROWSY CHAPERONE allows for these constant windows of opportunity to remain untaken, and therefore I am not satisfied with the explanation that this is just a superficial piece, not when it showed us that it could have been more.

But all that said and done, THE DROWSY CHAPERONE reminds us why we love the theater.  It reminds us why we let pieces of art affect us the way they do.  It's affirming, it's fun, and I highly recommend it for everyone!

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE plays August 2-19th at Deb Fennell Auditorium.  For more information on tickets and showtimes, click the link below:

Photo Credit to Craig Mitchelldyer







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