Musical fandom fun

The Drowsy Chaperone (Savoyards)

Wynnum State High School, Star Theatre

September 25 – October 9

The lonely Man in Chair (Brad Ashwood) who addresses the awaiting audience from the downed houselights start of “The Drowsy Chaperone” hates the theatre, especially long shows whose momentum is disrupted by pesky intervals and fourth wall breaks. We know this from the very first tongue-in-cheek words that come out of his mouth. Our earnest narrator of sorts, however, loves musicals, considering it a treat to disappear into them when feeling blue. This is especially the case when it comes to the decadent fictitious 1928 show “The Drowsy Chaperone”; even though he’s never seen it on stage, its rare two record cast recording is one of his favourites. It is natural, therefore, that he wants to share its joys and so as its first record crackles into an overture we find ourselves watching the show within a show unfold in the living room of the man’s dreary, accompanied by his animated commentary about its actors and characters, plot credibility and musical numbers. It’s all very meta in a marvellously exuberant and entertaining way.

The quirky Tony award winning musical’s title comes from one of cast of characters gathered for a prohibition-era wedding, introduced in the initial, rollicking number ‘Fancy Dress’. The carefree friend, confidante and chaperone (Vanessa Rainwright), whose drowsiness comes from drinking champagne, is always eager to steal spotlight from pampered Broadway starlet, Janet Van De Graff (Carly Wilson), who wants to give up showbiz to marry oil tycoon Robert Martin (Rhys Rice) at the fabulous Long Island estate of the aging and absent-minded Mrs Tottendale (Jacqui Cuny). And here-in lies the extent of the flimsy central conflict… the challenge of keeping the fiancées apart on their wedding day.

In the B plot, desperate Follies theatre producer, Feldzieg (Nathaniel Young) plots to sabotage the wedding plans through the introduction of wacky Latin lover Aldolpho (Christopher Thomas). It’s quite the line-up of two-dimensional characters brought to exaggerated life by the talented cast. There’s even an aviatrix (Vivien Wood) and jovial vaudevillian-style saboteur gangsters (Aaron Anderson and Astin Hammermeister) who double as pastry chefs in aim to ensure the wedding doesn’t occur so Follies will happen with Janet and be a financial success. Clearly anything can happen in the nonsensical storytelling of the Cole Porter sort being parodied.

Of the most over-the-top character appearances amongst the madcappery, it is Thomas who commands our attention as Aldolpho storming on stage to tango ‘I Am Aldolpho’, clearly relishing his every hammy moment as the faded Latino lover. Rice is also particularly noteworthy in his perfectly-embellished performance as the fabulously debonair bridegroom Robert, a self-confessed ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’. And Katilyn Burton brings a lot of laughs to the archetypal ditzy blonde role of useless chorus girl Kitty, who hopes to take Janet’s place in Follies, especially in Kitty’s clueless mind reading act revelation to Feldzieg as to his feelings towards her.

It is Ashwood, however, who anchors the show as the gentle, but giddily-gleeful musical aficionado Man in Chair. Never-off-stage, his reactions as he sings and dances along with the stars, don’t distract us from the musical’s action yet maintain our attention all the same as he wryly comments on the music, story and actors. And while he is at his best when on stage in choreographic participation in Janet’s ‘Bride’s Lament’, he easily transitions to engendering our empathy in later more moving scenes that highlight the regret embedded within his nostalgia, giving the show an unexpected substance below the lively, irreverent silliness of its veneer.

The production is full of memorable vocal moments too. Wilson’s tremendous voice is particularly displayed in the big production number ‘Show Off’, in which her character feigns desire to step away from the spotlight, only to dazzle the audience with costume and key changes and other impressive on-stage feats. Wainwright, meanwhile, makes her response to Janet’s doubts as to whether Robert really loves her a self-aggrandising rousing anthem to alcoholism in ‘As We Stumble Along’.

The score features a range of musical styles, with Ben Tubb-Hearne’s musical direction and an on-point orchestra, capturing the 20’s jazz era character in numbers like ‘Cold Feet’. The elaborate tap dance routine from Martin and his bumbling best man, George (Andrew King) is a real showstopper, particularly when accented by Mrs Tottendale’s loyal manservant, Underling’s (Warryn James) delivery of two glasses of water mid-song. Jazz Age musicals are also tributed throughout in choreography (Natalie Lennox – Choreographer) with catchy rhythms and up-tempo dance numbers, including the Act One (not that the 90-minute show has an interval), big ensemble dance stunner ‘Tuledo Surprise’.

Appropriately for a musical-inside-a-comedy, the show’s comic timing is spot on, especially as ‘on-stage’ action is undermined by Man in Chair’s playback glitches and alike. It is a hilarious musical farce, full of accessible humour of all sorts to keep the audience entertained, from pastry puns to blindfolded roller skating and dancing monkeys, but no pirates. There are multiple moments of musical comedy parodies, including mistaken identities, dream sequences, spit takes and the titular character’s Grande Dame upstaging antics.

With book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar and music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, “The Drowsy Chaperone” is indeed a very clever gem of a show and, as the Man in Chair himself says, it does what a musical is supposed to do. Under Robbie Parkin’s direction, Savoyards’ production is full of humour and also considerable heart in its embodiment of the joy that can be found in art. And it is easy to appreciate why it is on so many people’s list of favourites. While it is certainly unique in its ode to lightweight 1920s musicals, “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a masterful meta-musical for everyone who loves them, full of high-flying fun in its flirtation around all the tropes that characterise the genre.

Photos c/o – Sharyn Hall

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