Associate Connecticut Critic
I’ve never really cottoned to old song-and-dance musicals. You know, the kind with peppy tap numbers, sunny jokes and conflicts that resolve in a few bars of music. The kind Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut is largely known for. Even though I’m generally a rather sunny guy, my taste in theater veers towards shows that some might call bummers. Your “Sweeneys,” your “Spring Awakenings,” your “Next To Normals.” Shows that might leave you, as the unnamed narrator in “The Drowsy Chaperone” says, “a bit blue.” But between my usual diet of depressing theater and the dire state of our country right now, I have to agree with the so-called Man In Chair and give in to the fact that, sometimes, an old-fashioned musical is exactly what the doctor prescribed.
“The Drowsy Chaperone,” which closes Goodspeed’s 2017-2018 season is a highly entertaining cream puff of a play. It’s sweet and airy and has just enough heft to not merely float away. Written by Bob Martin & Don McKellar (book) and Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison (music and lyrics), “Chaperone” is a fizzy 2006 Broadway smash that lovingly sends-up the long-forgotten shows of yesteryear. It concerns a lonely, skittish shut-in dubbed Man In Chair (John Scherer, hilarious) who first laments when actors relate directly to audience members during a play (“I didn’t pay good money to have the fourth wall come crashing down around my ears.”) before spending the next two hours doing just that. He introduces the audience to his favorite musical, a (fictional) 1920s show called “The Drowsy Chaperone” which Man In Chair has never seen himself but has listened to obsessively since childhood. Because he’s feeling a bit blue, Man decides to play the entirety of the album and, as he imagines the musical in his mind, it comes to life right in his drab apartment (Howard Jones did the tricked-out set).
The show-within-a-show revolves the wedding of Janet Van de Graaff (Stephanie Rothenberg) and Robert Martin (Clyde Alves). He’s the son of a wealthy oil magnate and she’s a showgirl whose marriage means the end of her stage career. That’s a problem for her harried producer Mr. Feldzeig (James Judy) and his dim-witted protégée (Ruth Pferdehirt), whose business dealings are somehow wrapped up with the mob. The wedding also proves a logistical nightmare for Robert’s put-upon best man (Tim Falter) and Janet’s boozy caretaker (Jennifer Allen, in full grand dame mode). Also staying at the wedding estate is a forgetful society lady (Ruth Gotschall), her straight-laced butler (Jay Aubrey Jones), a bumbling Lothario (John Rapson) and two gangsters posing as pastry chefs (Blakely Slaybaugh and Parker Slaybaugh). Of course, hi-jinks ensue, identities are mistaken, complications arise and then everything is neatly resolved before the final curtain.
The plot is purposefully thin, merely a series of songs and shtick connected by a needlessly busy story. But that’s part of “Chaperone’s” charm. If you begin to find yourself tired of a bit of physical comedy or a high-energy dance number, per se, the show quickly careens quickly into another song or a new set of jokes. There’s also the joy of Man In Chair’s narration. He is constantly interrupting the action to offer citations about the fake actors (“The gangsters were played by vaudeville duo John and Peter Tall. They were born Abram and Mendel Mosloskowicz, but were renamed at Ellis Island by a sarcastic immigration official”), personal interjections and even a fair share of meta-criticism. One song’s lyrics, he says, are dumb while the extended spit-take joke is lame and tired. I agree. These interruptions are not just hysterical but also feel like one big, winking in-joke since so much of Goodspeed’s repertoire is made up of the shows “Drowsy” is lampooning. The moment when Man puts on the wrong record, resulting in the presentation of a hilariously offensive “King and I”-esque stage show, is downright genius.
The cast all perfectly mirrors the chipper, overacted style of 1920s-‘40s style musicals. Rothenberg and Allen are a delight, while Falter is in pure Donald O'Connor mode. Rapson makes a four-course meal of the scenery, indulging in a cartoony accent that Man In Chair is quick to point out as being culturally insensitive and passé. In fact, all the dancing and singing is top-notch (the band sounds amazing too). But pulling everything together is Scherer, who plays Man In Chair like a wannabe chorus boy whose Broadway dreams were sidetracked by a troubled childhood and a disastrously short marriage. One might gander that a male companion would have suited him better. His comedic chops are sharp and it’s a joy to watch Scherer mouth the lyrics along to the musical numbers. Perhaps he leans into the fey affections a bit too heavily – a more restrained performance would have been a better contrast to the wacky fake-musical and might have made his few emotionally honest monologues land a bit more truthfully – but nevertheless, he’s a hoot start to finish.
So is the whole production. It’s clear director Hunter Foster understands and has a love for the material. There’s a joy on stage that’s nearly impossible to replicate. It overcomes the occasional lame joke or the shoe-horned intermission which leaves the show oddly lopsided or the fact that sight-lines are sometimes an issue in the beautiful but totally flat auditorium. “Drowsy” isn’t a perfect musical, but it’s a helluva lot of fun, which is exactly the point. As Man In Chair says about the show-within-a-show “It does what a musical is supposed to do: it takes you to another world and it gives you a little tune to carry in your head, you know? A little something to help you escape the dreary horrors of the real world...I just want a story and a few songs that will take me away. I want to be entertained. I mean, isn’t that the point?” In this case, I couldn’t agree with him more.
Noah Golden is an associate theater critic and columnist for OnStage based near New Haven, CT. Throughout his life, he has been involved in many facets of theater from acting to directing to playing drums in the pit. When not in or writing about theater, Noah is a video producer and editor. Twitter: @NoahTheGolden.