Sometimes being silly serves a therapeutic purpose. If nothing else, while in the whirl of silliness you’re released from the burdens of everyday life, and everything that makes you frown or etches those stress lines on your face is chased away. So, if you feel you need a dose of silliness, make your way out to Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, take in two acts of “The Drowsy Chaperone” and call me in the morning. Billed as a “musical within a comedy,” this Tony award-winning, light-as-air exercise in frivolity and campiness (and intentional over-the-top performances) will, if only for a few hours, chase away the dreaded Blue Meanies.
Directed with tongue-in-cheek by Hunter Foster, this puff-pastry production, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and a book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, introduces a “Man in Chair” (John Scherer). One wonders why the writers couldn’t give him a name, like Bruce or Boris (well, maybe not Boris). In any event, I guess he’s supposed to be Everyman, but he isn’t, for he is an agoraphobic who loves musical comedies, especially those boarded in the 20s and 30s, and has a collection of original cast albums (LPs, no less) that he treasures. He is familiar with the biographies of many of the now faded or forgotten stars of the shows and, when feeling a bit low, which apparently is often, he will put on a record and stage a musical comedy in his mind.
The “Man in Chair” is a frame for the musical that will unfold, for “Man” will give a running commentary on, among other things, the structure of musicals, the strengths and weaknesses of those who played in them, historical musical theater tidbits and some insights into audience decorum and response to what occurs on a stage. He will also suggest, in passing, why he is smitten by these theatrical heirlooms and how they essentially assuage his loneliness as well as fulfill the dreams and desires that haunt his life. Playing the role with something of a limp-wristed nervousness, Scherer as “Man” is a tremendously engaging docent who, over the course of the evening, guides the audience through the musical comedy “museum” that is “The Drowsy Chaperone.” At the onset, he asks if the audience wishes to hear the original cast album. The audience responds in the affirmative. He lovingly wipes dust from an LP and places it on the turntable, drops the needle, and off we go.
The musical itself is filled with stereotypes: there’s the rich lady, Mrs. Tottendale (Ruth Gottschall) and her faithful if somewhat sarcastic servant, Underling (Jay Aubrey Jones). The lady plans to host a wedding. Robert (Clyde Alves) will be the groom, and George (Tim Falter) his best man, but this isn’t your normal society wedding because Robert is marrying Janet Van de Graaff (Stephanie Rothenberg), who has decided to forsake the stage to marry Robert, much to the consternation of Mr. Feldzieg (James Judy), who was planning to produce Janet’s next show.
Equally displeased with Janet’s nuptial intentions are two gangsters (Blakely and Parker Slaybaugh) who represent the “money” backing the show – if Janet weds, the show nosedives and the angel’s money is as good as gone. If that’s not enough, there’s the eponymous chaperone (Jennifer Allen), charged with keeping Janet on the straight and narrow (if the chaperone can stay sober), a European lounge lizard, Aldopho (John Rapson), a world-famous aviatrix, Trix (Danielle Le Greaves) and Feldzieg’s “lady friend,” Kitty (Ruth Pferdehirt), who aspires to play Janet’s role in the show. Got all that? So, will true love triumph or will fame, fortune and show biz glitz keep the lovers apart? It’s a no-brainer.
So, “Man in Chair” drops the needle onto the LP and the show comes to life, which leads to a number of delightful production numbers done in the always superlative Goodspeed style. The actors may be playing in a clunky 1920s musical, but their performances are anything but clunky – they shine.
Many of the numbers evoke characters and staging from well-known, successful musicals. There’s the first-act “Cold Feets” number in which Alves and Falter, via tap dance, make you think of the Gene Kelly-Donald O’Connor pairing in “Singing in the Rain.” The second act opener, “Message From a Nightingale” is a Flo Ziegfield salute and the routines and patter of the two gangsters are right out of “Guys and Dolls,” as is Pferdehirt’s take on Kitty, which is pure Miss Adelaide; there’s also more than a single nod to Busby Berkeley’s over-the-top staging style.
As explained by “Man,” if a “big” star (read a female lead who could belt out a number) was cast in a musical, then there had to be an “anthem” number that allowed her to, well…belt it out (think Ethel Merman). Thus, Allen gets to belt out “As We Stumble Alone,” which becomes not only a production number but is reprised as the cast of the “show’ finally acknowledges the “Man’s” presence and devotion and includes him in the finale.
If there’s a signature song in the show, it’s “Show Off,” in which Janet swears off show business and the attendant desire to draw attention to herself – of course, in the process, she does, in fact, draw attention to herself with multiple costume changes and a sword-swallowing moment at the end of the number. Rothenberg pulls all of this off with aplomb, as she also does in the “Bride’s Lament,” which is about her lover as a lovey-dovey monkey (the “Man” warns the audience that the song’s lyrics are ridiculous – which they intentionally are). This set-up features a statue of a monkey that visually refers to Rodin’s statue, “The Thinker” – its appearance evoked laughter before the number even got under way.
The neat thing about Goodspeed’s “Drowsy Chaperone” is that there are multiple ways to enjoy the show. You can just sit back and revel in the production numbers, or you can catch all of the musical theater allusions, or you can follow the patter delivered by “Man in Chair,” catch some of the innuendo, and wiggle a bit at how “naughty” we’re all being. It’s up to you, but no matter what your “take” is on the show you’re sure to be entertained.
“The Naughty Chaperone” runs through November 25. For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit: www.goodspeed.org.