Review: The Drowsy Chaperone by Zach Theatre
by Michael Meigs
That's hyperbole, of course. Because you don't need to run anywhere. You just tap zachtheatre.org into your browser, click a couple of times and give them your payment details.
The Drowsy Chaperone is a zinger because Lambert, Morrison, Martin and McKellar lovingly spoof those energetic, naive and amazing beginnings of what became American musical theatre, admired across the world, while giving us a contemporary moderator and chorus -- in the Greek sense. Martin Burke as the anonymous Man in the Chair hosts us for an evening alone in his apartment with LP recordings of that mythical 1928 musical.
We hear him before we see him. The lights go down in the theatre, we sit expectantly in the darkness, and in his casual, friendly way the Man in the Chair greets us. When the lights come up again on that meticulously decorated living room set -- recalling thousands like it in the musicals -- Burke speaks directly to us with confidential ease, converting the entire audience into his best friend. Seated in his easy chair next to the record player -- yes, a 33 rpm turntable -- he's on the stage but not, exactly, onstage. Burke sees us, teases us, and shares very little at first other than his love for the 82-year-old musical that he is about to play for us.
As he does so, we realize that the Man in the Chair is sitting on our side of the fourth wall. That dizzy ancient musical with its stock characters enacted with vaudeville flair by long-vanished famous showpeople unrolls right before us, as if in our collective mind's eye. None of the glamorous dead or the fictional characters they portray can see him, although they play to us with confidence and vigor. We are both an Austin audience and at the same time the bejewelled, top-hatted New York theatregoers of the days just before the Great Crash.
Martin Burke's presence and delight shine a wonderful light on the imaginary Broadway piece; he freely shares his erudition and his lightly carried cynicism but gives us only sketchy details about himself. We are discovering him and he is seducing us en masse, as if we were on an unchaperoned date to taste the joys of the roaring twenties.
And there's the drowsy chaperone herself, played as an unflappable flapper by Meredith McCall. On the day before the wedding, her job is to keep the bride and groom from seeing one another at the Long Island estate. These are the times of Prohibition but our chaperone is in glassy-eyed euphoria, always with a highball in hand.
The story doesn't much matter. These are shenanigans, engineered to give those talented, self-important performers opportunities to sing, to clown, and to dance. Creators of this confection were reveling in stereotypes and at the naïvité of American popular culture, preserved for us largely in musical films of the early 1930s.
This cast hits every mark and lifts you into its singing, dancing world. There's a hysterical moment in Act II when we plunge momentarily into a different musical with the same stars, giving a wildly exaggerated vision of the mysterious Orient, but the creators are careful. They tactfully avoid blackface. The only African-American in the cast is Dorothy Mays Clark as Trix the aviatrix, silver clad, who flies gallantly into the story in the closing scenes like a dea ex machina to resolve some difficulties and to tie some knots.
Guest director Nick Demos and choreographer Robin Lewis razzle 'em and dazzle 'em. Alternating between Burke's confidential chatter and the rapidly cresting scenes of the musical, the piece builds our appetites and it's easy to share the enthusiasms of the Man in the Chair. He pours himself progressively more voluminous snifters of brandy in the second act and we're the ones who feel the delicious edge of inebriation as this ridiculous story builds to its coy climax.
The music bounces and every character is vivid. Take your choice of entertainers: Jill Blackwood as the acclaimed stage star retiring, maybe, at the ripe old age of maybe 25; Jamie Goodwin as Aldolpho the immensely vain and misdirected seducer (a beloved actor later consumed by his poodles, according to the Man in the Chair); or tap-dancing men-about-town Robert the groom (Matt Redden) and his buddy George (done on opening night by choreographer Robin Lewis).
In classic vaudeville style, comic duos build and reprise routines -- silly spraying back-and-forth between Amy Nichols as befuddled Mrs. Tottendale and Ian Scott as Underling the butler; Tyler Wallach and Leslie R. Hetcox as the most adorable chef-hatted gangsters in town, delivering pastry puns, each broader than the last (the Tall brothers, Burke informs us, so rechristened at Ellis Island when arriving from eastern Europe).
How can you top all that? Answer: with a power surge that shuts down the lights, the record player, and the magic, leaving us -- all of us -- alone with the Man in the Chair, suddenly stranded in the incomprehension of the 21st century where "musical theatre" is taken to mean The Lion King and the helicopter scene in Miss Saigon.
Momentarily we remember that we've been celebrating ghosts and a bright, intoxicated vision.
Our new friend shares some thoughts on that, we glimpse ever so faintly his back story, and then he finds the fusebox and reilluminates all of us for the finale.
Review by Clare Croft for the Statesman's Austin360 "Seeing Things" blog, June 28 (with LOTS of indignant blow-back in the commentaries, most recent listed first)
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1510 Toomey Road
Austin, TX, 78704