The Drowsy Chaperone is one big wink. It’s a show within a show. It’s a commentary on musicals and memory, and it just so happens to be really funny.
The show, directed by Stuart Hecht of the theatre department, starts with Man in Chair, played by Andrew Gaffney, A&S ’16, with an inviting twitch. He knows the audience is looking right at him, and he looks, or more often talks, back. This man has the blues, for no particular reason he admits. His sure cure is a bit of nostalgia. He harkens back to Broadway in the roaring ’20s and his favorite musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. So, he sets the needle to the famed and fictitious LP of Gable and Stein’s 1928 Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone. The cozy little kitchen set where the show begins opens up into a wide, bright space. It’s what a room in Jay Gatsby’s house might have looked like, with a rising grand staircase and colorful columns.
The Man toting the audience along is whipped away from the dreary present into the world of The Drowsy Chaperone, filled with characters and show-stopping numbers. The Man introduces this new cast and the fairly straightforward plot. Broadway starlet Janet van de Graaf (Sarah Winglass, A&S ’14) is set to give up performing and marry the suave and filthy rich Robert Martin (David Makransky, A&S ’17). Of course, things fall apart and unexpected developments arise along the way.
The show proceeds with its colorful cast of characters. The Drowsy Chaperone herself is played by Samantha Goober, A&S ’15. The goofy hostess Mrs. Tottendale is played by Caroline Portu, A&S ’16, alongside Jake Alexander, A&S ’14, who plays her stiff butler Underling. Andrew Troum, A&S ’16, plays the groom’s excitable yet forgetful best man George, while Kyle Brown, A&S ’14, plays a dim European lothario Adolpho. Ryan Cooper, A&S ’16, stars as a gruff Broadway producer played and the role of Kitty is played by Karalyn Hutton, A&S ’16.
The fictional ‘Drowsy’ unfolds with fun notes and annotations from the Man as he stops and starts the record player to give the audience inside info on the fictional actors who originated the Broadway ensemble. The Drowsy Chaperonedoesn’t just break the fourth wall, but builds it back up then delights in smashing it again. This only makes the performances of the ensemble that more impressive. Each isn’t playing a character, but the actor who plays the character. And in a show full of fun musical numbers, everyone gets in on the action. Winglass, as Janet van de Graaf, is every bit the starlet in “Show Off.” Goober as the Drowsy Chaperone is hilarious in her bumbling, rousing anthem “As We Stumble Along.”
The Drowsy Chaperone is the often misunderstood, ever-ambitious NBC sitcom Communityas a musical. Like that reference, not all the show’s jokes hit the roof. Some sail over heads. Some go straight to the gut. And the performers play the jokes with a knowing wink. They let the audience in on the joke, which only makes it more enjoyable.
It’s easy to get caught up in ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ within the actual Drowsy Chaperone. The musical numbers proceed at a brisk pace, and that’s the point: that the audience members continually forget that they’re not really watching a musical, but what one lonely Man imagines it might look like. The issue in The Drowsy Chaperone isn’t whether Robert Martin and Janet van de Graaf will get married or not. The Drowsy Chaperone is about a man with the blues, who refuses to answer his phone and deal with real life. Instead, he takes the audience into the world of the musical. That’s where the heart of the show lies, and it rests on the performance of Gaffney as Man in Chair. Gaffney with his clever annotations carries the play. He’s the eccentric gatekeeper of the stage. He’s always in the action, sometimes to the side, sometimes behind but always there, visibly delighted as his favorite characters play out his favorite musical.
In the back of their minds, the audience members know the show is building to the moment when The Drowsy Chaperone will end, leaving Gaffney sitting alone in that tiny little room. Gaffney owns the moment like he has all night as he searches and stumbles for the words to make sense of his ever present blues. The Drowsy Chaperone finds itself in a difficult place between the musical’s optimism and the Man’s blues.
The Man stumbles in his little kitchen for some reconciliation. He begins a reprisal of “As We Stumble Along.” But then his little room splits apart again, and Makransky as Robert Martin pokes his head out with a wicked grin. Out comes the rest of the ensemble, and for the first time in the show, the players don’t ignore their delightful narrator, to his evident delight. They join in on his reprisal.It may not solve all the blues with which the Man is plagued, but it’s just the right message to send off. Sure, life is hard and musicals are silly, but sometimes they come together just right.