In a pitch-black theater, a voice rings with a clear Southern drawl: “I hate theater.” Thus begins “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a postmodern throwback to 1920s-era screwball musicals. After a few moments of disillusioned mumblings, the lights go up to reveal Ryan Bowers ’14, the show’s lonely bachelor and unofficial cultural critic who’s known as “Man in Chair.”
As the light illuminates his figure, Man in Chair pines for an earlier era of musicals and decides to enlighten the audience with an old favorite recording of “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
The musical — that is, within the musical — begins with the anticipated wedding of former showgirl Janet van de Graaff (Rebecca Brudner ’16) and Robert Martin (Christian Probst ’16). Supporting characters make for an especially colorful cast. Painfully aware of each character’s archetypal lack of originality, Man in Chair introduces them as generalities: “a harried producer, jovial gangsters posing as pastry chefs, a flaky chorine (chorus girl, for the uninitiated thespian), a Latin lothario and an aviatrix,” he says. And, of course, the Drowsy Chaperone.
So how does the cast of “The Drowsy Chaperone” animate these cardboard cutouts? The answer: it doesn’t. Content to mimic the overdone absurdity of 1920s screwball comedies, the show favors aggressive silliness over any satirical undertones.
Given the production’s unconventional narrative structure, its dependence on predictable slapstick routines was disappointing. Man in Chair bubbles with sarcastic outbursts throughout the piece, but any flirtations with genuine satire by the rest of the cast often fall flat.
If the intent was merely to mimic 1920s screwball comedy, the cast succeeds splendidly. But with that imitation, the show sacrifices the nuances of irony for the one-dimensionality of such comedy.
But “satire” and “irony” are lofty words, and by no means necessary for an enjoyable experience. “The Drowsy Chaperone,” while not nearly as unconventional as it may strive to be, is pure escapism. For those inclined to such slapstick hilarity, it’s a lively and engaging show (look forward to a scene devoted to spitting water in a British butler’s face and corresponding commentary by Man in Chair).
The second half of the show — at just under two hours long, no intermission is given — escapes the predictability of the first half and edges toward a more inventive discourse. With his comedic timing impeccable, Bowers rescues the plot from complete vacuity with each pithy aside. After accidentally paying the wrong record, he explains he hires a cleaning woman who “has an annoying habit of putting my records away … even though I say, ‘No touch records, Carmela. No touch records.’ I suppose if I spoke to her in complete sentences she’d stop touching my records.”
For something that could be as dizzying as an Escher painting (the theatrical equivalent of hands drawing hands drawing hands), “The Drowsy Chaperone” holds your hand as you navigate its play-within-a-play structure. Man in Chair, while often restricted to his cozy corner on the left of the stage, reminds us of his presence as he synchronizes his legs with another character or flicks an object into the musical, evidence of effective directorial choices.
The cast performs together with irresistible chemistry — the two pastry-pun-loving gangsters (Gabe Greenspan ’14 and Sharif Youssef ’14) strike a Tweedledum and Tweedledee harmony. But individual performances suffer at times from unconvincing exaggeration. In seeking to convey his character’s narcissism, Probst delivers one too many winks to the audience. Exaggeration, of course, is part of the charade, as Man in Chair is quick to note. But somehow Probst misplaces exaggeration with an overly contrived sense of ersatz flamboyance. (That said, with tap dancing, roller-skating and blindfolded dancing, Probst shows enviable talent.)
The titular Drowsy Chaperone (Sara Hendel ’14) embodies tipsy perfection as she glides across the stage, champagne glass forever in hand. Hendel’s delicate voice sometimes drowns in an overwhelming orchestra and reaches us best without any musical accompaniment.
Despite its avoidance of more nuanced complexities, “The Drowsy Chaperone” delivers. It delivers energy and comedy and an entire tune about monkeys at which it’s impossible not to laugh. But at some point, each candy-coated performance verged on sickly sweet. And while I didn’t leave with a stomachache, I had my fill and won’t be craving sugar for a while.