Incredible as it may seem, this lovely bit of upmarket fluff has
been the subject of a critical tong war in the blogosphere, which is
why Australian star Geoffrey Rush was summoned home for the Sydney
premiere earlier this year. Bizarre as it sounds, blogging loudmouths
like John Kenjac claim that Chaperone disrespects the genre and
demeans buffs who dote on vintage record collections. Yet Moss’
presence—ebullient, confident and wry—crushes such nonsense underfoot.
Ever since The Drowsy Chaperone came out of nowhere
(actually, Toronto) to win big at the Tonys three years ago, most
audiences have become familiar with the premise. The Man in the Chair,
with a large collection of vinyl LP albums, shares his favorite from
1928, also called The Drowsy Chaperone, and conjures up characters and scenes from the back of a nondescript bedroom. So far this sounds like an update of The Boy Friend, Dames at Sea or Thoroughly Modern Millie,
but with the Man in the Chair’s post-modernist commentary. Speaking of
a tall, dominatrix-appearing beauty (Aleka Emerson) in tight period
aviator’s pants, he muses, “She’s an aviatrix (two-beat pause), what we
nowadays call a lesbian.”
Audiences who think they know the show will be surprised at how
Merry-Go-Round producing director Ed Sayles has sharpened and revamped
the concept. Torontonians Bob Martin and Don McKellar started out to
provide entertainment for a groom’s stag party in 1998. Co-scripter
Martin really was marrying Janet Van de Graaff, and those names are
attached to the romantic leads of the show we see. When the wedding
guests were crazy for the skits, composers Lisa Lambert and Greg
Morrison were brought in to come up with music that sounded like the
era of Vincent Youmans or DeSylva, Brown and Henderson. Chaperone
went on to the Toronto Fringe Festival, becoming an unprecedented
smash. Martin created the role of The Man in the Chair for himself so
that he could appear on stage, in effect, twice, a role he retained in
the May 2006 Broadway opening.
In Auburn, Chaperone grows from being an aggrandized series
of skits into a fully staged production. Sayles has banished the shabby
bedroom and replaced it with a comfortable set by Rob Andrusko that
could be modeled on a top-end apartment on Park Avenue. The Man in the
Chair now sits or struts in front of the curtain, both at left and
right, while the action unfolds more or less independently behind him.
He may still control the show, as by moving the needle back in the
groove to replay some action, but mostly the silly plot unfolds at will.
There is, of course, no such historical show from 1928 as The Drowsy Chaperone, nor
did full cast productions and 33 1/3 rpm LP recordings appear for a
long while after that time. But even casual musical-goers will
recognize the milieu, themes and motifs from such golden oldies that
are still performed, like Anything Goes or No, No Nanette. The
title is wonderfully suggestive. Chaperones in America were only found
among the moneyed classes, and if the old girl was drowsy, it means the
youngsters are freer to get into mischief. This time the chaperone
(Julie Cardia) is not only drowsy but tipsy, ready to enjoy forbidden
liquid pleasure during Prohibition.
The plot, such as it is, has leggy showgirl Janet Van de Graff
(Bethany Moore) giving up her job with Feldzieg’s Follies, to marry
handsome oil tycoon Robert Martin (Michael VanGemert). Hulking producer
Feldzieg (Brad Nacht), always seen with his Gracie Allen-like bimbo
Kitty (Jenny Long), is under threat by two gangsters employed by his
chief investor. They are two short, pun-happy thugs (Michael Munoz and
Bryan Plofsky) who want to stop the wedding so that Janet will have to
rejoin the company and save the investor. In his own futile attempt to
stall the wedding, Feldzieg employs a bumbling Latin lothario named
Adolpho (Bruce Warren) to seduce Janet. Disoriented, Adolpho mistakenly
seeks out other female members of the wedding party.
As this cat’s cradle of plot lines tightens, we also get something
resembling dramatic tension between the bride and groom. Robert,
wearing a blindfold, is approached by Janet speaking in a barely
detectible French accent, and Robert agrees to kiss her. So did Robert
think he was kissing another woman? Horreur!
While Martin and McKellar wanted to spoof the paper-thin conventions
of a bygone era they also reveal the strength of such jerry-built story
lines. Every single character, even those not yet cited, exists to grab
the spotlight or steal a scene. Even George (Danny Gardner), the comic
best man, gets a share of gags and scores in a duet with the groom,
“Cold Feets.” An empty-headed rich woman, Mrs. Tottendale (Sandra
Karas), and the Arthur Treacher-sounding butler (Geno Carr) trade sharp
repartee like a vaudeville duo on their own track. They also light up
the stage in the first act’s “Fancy Dress” and “Love is Always Lovely”
in the second.
Director Sayles, famous for his attention to casting, knew what he
could get out of Karas and Carr, who have been company favorites over
many summers. Likewise, leggy Bethany Moore, who was sexpot Ulla in the
The Producers, invests Janet with such energy (not to
mention splits in the dance number) that she begins to seem like a
person rather than a cipher. Similarly, Bruce Warren takes hammy
Adolpho to the max, a brilliantly contrived portrait of a skilled
comedian spoofing a clumsy actor overacting.
As Merry-Go-Round has spelled out in several news releases, the
company that has been billing itself as “Broadway in the Finger Lakes”
is about to become the springboard for a full-scale musical theater
festival. Think of it as a singing-and-dancing “Stratford in the Finger
Lakes.” Given the superlative production values of The Drowsy Chaperone, Corinne
Aquilina’s music direction, Lori Leshner’s choreography, Adam Frank’s
lighting design and Travis Lope’s period costumes, the venture looks
like a secure investment of local treasure and expectations.
This production runs through June 30. See Times Table for information.