This show confronts me with two of the issues I have grumbled about in previous reviews: there is no intermission, and it is ostensibly a musical rather than a play—and that complaint is as good a way into this review as any, because the script plays with those two issues: while there is no intermission for the audience, the main character, Man in Chair addresses the whole subject of intermissions during the “intermission”; and while it is filled with over-the-top musical numbers, they are really set pieces within the play, which itself is about an old man telling us how much he likes this old musical. The emotional power of the piece is vested in the play, not the musical. And that approach is its strength.
We have seen how Hollywood converted Fitzgerald’s brilliant The Great Gatsbyinto a flashy flop, simply because the crucial irony of the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, did not translate to the screen. The concept of a narrator is pretty primitive: it was a staple of classical Greek theatre, where the chorus interpreted the action for the audience; I have also seen stage-directed narrative dragging down plenty of scripts by would-be playwrights who do not yet know how to handle exposition. The concept of narrator can also be very sophisticated, as witness the aforementioned Greek theatre and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, where the Stage Manager character evokes the philosophical and humanistic underpinnings of the play in a most evocative way.
Man in Chair is a superb manifestation of the chorus/narrator technique. The musical within the play certainly could not stand on its own with any particular distinction, the five Tony awards notwithstanding, as the characters are totally over the top and the plot is thinner than an ingenue’s negligee. It is the audience’s identification with Man in the Chair (the action of the play) that makes it all work. It is here that Jay Brazeau (Man in Chair) really shines: we come to see him as a mensch with a past. It is not a particularly enthralling past, but he really sells the connection of this particular musical to the emotional twists of his life. I wonder what kind of discussion the show’s creators had about the delivery of the final moments where they took the rather daring step of completely destroying the emotional impact of the musical (which is totally frivolous remember) and breaking the barrier between fantasy and reality in favor of raising the emotional stakes for Man in Chair. Whatever that discussion was, whatever the risk was, it works brilliantly. It is at that moment that the audience can see just how remarkable the conception and portrayal of Man in Chair is. In the stage program notes, Brazeau asks if anyone has an idea for his next gig. I have one: continue being Man in Chair for a forward-thinking city that develops a festival around The Drowsy Chaperone, as Charlottetown did with Anne of Green Gables.
Yet, without the musical, or with a lesser object example, most of us would never have met Man in Chair, because the razzle-dazzle dynamite performances that serve as a foil for Man in Chair would not have been there. Other reviews have praised these performances to the skies, and I agree: the performers, without exception are amazing. There is the orchestra that played practically nonstop for almost two hours, always on cue, and the queues are many and split-second (all the more remarkable when you consider that Scott Davey, the musical director/keyboardist, took over on one day’s notice when Lloyd Nicholson died suddenly). Watching the cast was like being presented with a candy smorgasbord of endless delight: each bit was delectable, a meal in itself. There was just about every stock character in vaudeville or musical: the ditzy blonde, the melodramatic villain/Lothario, the sleazy entrepreneur, the pair of comic gangsters, the uncomprehending silly mother, the galactic ingénue, the naïve lover, the faithful servant/clown, the classy deus ex machina aviatrix and the boozy neglectful chaperone herself—it would appear that we have developed our own commedia dell’arte; perhaps we are coming of age as a culture. All of these performers and the supporting cast are the whole package: they have superb voices, they are dancers (tap dancers at that), with presence, style, and a superb sense of timing. Remember the old joke that the secret of comedy is—timing. This show requires timing in spades, timing used with great comic effect: the spit takes and the falling cane combined with the device of the record player, to name just two (You had to be there).
As an ensemble, the cast is dynamic, well-drilled, and projects the fun and the over the top sensibility of the twenties musical. Individually there were some remarkable performances. I particularly like the two gangsters, Josh Epstein and Neil Minor, who were in some ways reminiscent of the two gangsters in Kiss Me Kate, whose choreography and emphasis allowed them to play these parts to the hilt. Norma McLellan and Julien Arnold were superb as a pair of old vaudevillians playing the Butler and his addled Mistress; their timing and interpretation of the totally silly dialogue was wonderful. Thom Allison played Aldolpho about five feet wider and taller than humanly possible, his costume, gesture, voice, makeup all working to make him so distinctive that the character was still recognizable even in about twenty pounds of Oriental costume and makeup. Susan Gilmore as The Drowsy Chaperone has a gorgeous voice and was certainly capable of upstaging anyone on those boards, as the part requires. Lovena B. Fox certainly has a standout voice that will make me look for her CDs. Nathalie Marrable gave us a classic dumb blonde in the best brassy fashion. Mark Burgess was suitably sleazy as what had to be the villain of the piece who conspires to stop the wedding for his own nefarious purposes. The more or less straight characters in the piece are played by Ryan Reid, Jon Ullyatt and Debbie Timuss, who were all wonderful in their roles, singing and dancing and emoting exactly as required, providing foils for the craziness going on around them. In this regard, they don’t really stand out because they aren’t given anything especially remarkable to do. I like Ullyatt’s take on Charlie Chaplin’s blind skating routine, and I was particularly taken with Timuss’ leg work. But it is Reid who has to labor in relative anonymity as perhaps the only really normal person in the show besides Man in Chair.
Costuming was a delight to watch; there was such variety and imagination that the costumery was almost a character by itself. For example, a diagonal plaid on the gangster characters was exactly the right degree of zany. Adolpho’s cape and so many of the female costumes struck just the right extravagant note.
Choreography and movement struck just the right balance particularly considering the timing involved in some of the effects associated with the record skips.
The music was engaging all the way through and so typical of the era and so effective; I felt as if I had heard it all before, yet it was original.
The set was simple ingenious and effective making full use of color and the possibilities of the age.
I highly recommend this; it is a great evening.
The National Arts Center English Theatre presents a National Arts Center English Theatre/Citadel Theatre (Edmonton) coproduction of the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company production
The Drowsy Chaperone
Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Director: Max Reimer
Music Director: Lloyd Nicholson/Scott Davey
Choreographer/Assistant Director: Dayna Tekatch
Said Designer: Jean Claude Olivier
Costume Designer: Philip Clarkson
Lighting Designer: Gerald King
Original Sound Designer: Lucas Cooper
Sound Designer: Owen Hutchinson
Dance Captain: Lauren Bowler
Stage Manager: Jan Hodgson
Assistant Stage Manager: Peter Jotkus
Replacement Assistant Stage Manager:Samira Rose
Jay Brazeau: Man in Chair
Nora McLellan: Mrs. Tottendale
Julien Arnold: Underling
Lauren Bowler: Ensemble/Understudy for Janet & Kitty
Timothy Gledhill: Ensemble/Understudy for Robert & George
John Ullyatt: Robert
Ryan Reid: George
Mark Burgess: Feldzieg
Josh Epstein: Gangster
Neil Minor: Gangster
Thom Allison: Adolpho
Debbie Timuss: Janet
Susan Gilmour: Drowsy Chaperone
Lovena B. Fox:Trix the Aviatrix
Scott Davey: Music Director/Keyboards
Mike Tremblay: Reed 1
Mike Mullen: Reed 2
Ross Turner: Trumpet
Mark Ferguson: Trombone
Paul Mach: Bass
Nick Apivor : Percussion
Sam Lutfiyya : Music Contractor
running time: 112 minutes production reviewed: October 24, 2009 7:30 PM
For videos on YouTube of what was probably the original cast, see The Drowsy Chaperone