Possibly the only event more saturated with sentimentality than a wedding is a musical-theater production. A musical about a wedding, then, should play a symphony on the heartstrings. The Drowsy Chaperone, the St. Michael’s Playhouse season opener currently running at the McCarthy Arts Center, both is and isn’t this kind of musical. It’s a satire of a Jazz Age musical wrapped in a clever, contemporary narrative. The play skewers the genre’s frothy essence, but also expresses heartfelt appreciation for its enduring appeal: escape from a gloomy reality. The Drowsy Chaperone transcends its own genre, thanks to a staging directed and choreographed by Keith Andrews that surpasses the high quality we’ve come to expect at the Playhouse.
Even before the stage lights go up, The Drowsy Chaperone introduces itself as a play with an irreverent take on theater. The narrator, referred to as Man in Chair (Craig Wells), lists some common ways that plays go wrong, such as being too long or sending cast members into the audience. When the lights go up, he promptly embraces another of these transgressions — knocking down the Fourth Wall — by addressing the audience directly. Thus begins his guided tour of a favorite musical, the eponymous (and fictional) work from 1928. The Drowsy Chaperone cast album, Man in Chair explains, is his tried-and-true remedy when he’s feeling “blue” — his current state. As he spins the disc, cast members enter from the wings of his imagination to perform the show.
Man in Chair’s refusal to reveal the cause of his “nonspecific sadness” creates a compelling subplot. That mystery soon yields to flamboyant spectacle, but it lurks in the background, awaiting its inevitable cue. Wells hints skillfully at this subtext, striking subtle notes in contrast to the play’s otherwise broad strokes. It’s obvious Man in Chair connects in some deep way to the plot he synopsizes, but we must experience The Drowsy Chaperone before we learn why.
The musical’s plot goes something like this: Star of stage and screen Janet Van De Graaff (Elizabeth Pawlowski) is leaving her glamorous career behind to marry wealthy bachelor Robert Martin (David Rossetti), much to the dismay of her producer, Feldzieg (John D. Alexander). On the wedding day, Feldzieg frets that his show can’t go on if his leading lady takes off.
His date, the ditzy blond Kitty (Lilly Tobin), thinks she’d make a dandy replacement, but Feldzieg is doubtful. Enter two thugs (Marc Tumminelli and Samuel Durant Hunter) sent from the Feldzieg Follies’ chief investor to harm Feldzieg should the dame say, “I do.”
Advocating for the nuptials are the bride’s reckless chaperone (Kathryn Markey) and the bridegroom’s best man, George (Brance Cornelius). Wedding hostess Mrs. Tottendale (Agnes Cummings) and her butler, Underling (Bill Carmichael), carry on a chorus-like side commentary on the nature of love, while Latin ladies’ man Aldolpho (James Donegan) leers about, looking for a new conquest.
Trix the “aviatrix” (Natalie Renee) sails by in her prop plane early in the show with no clear link to the story but a promise to return, which she will. But not before two cases of mistaken identity send the plot in diverse directions, and much hilarity ensues.
Whether The Drowsy Chaperone is well acted is a tricky question. If “cheeky” describes the narrative voice, then “campy” defines the acting style. Actors in a 1920s musical would’ve been unmolested by Stanislavski’s fussy Method, and this cast gluttonously hams it up. Strong performances draw on deft exaggerations.
For Pawlowski’s starlet, talent has more to do with showing off her legs than her acting range, and her irrepressible vanity is hilarious. As the chaperone, who is not so much drowsy as boozy, Markey uses world-weary gazes and cynical rejoinders to sketch the cartoon of an actress whose best years are behind her. As horndog Aldolpho, Donegan goes further over the top than any other player, and he’s a howl every moment of the way. So broad are the portrayals in The Drowsy Chaperone that Alexander — who has earned a reputation for his bold stage presence in mostly dramatic roles — is somehow not the most thunderous voice in the room.
There are no weak links in this show, however, not even where Andrews takes the greatest risk: in the song-and-dance numbers. His cast is stocked with pros, but the playfulness and precision of his choreography hit a mark rarely seen locally outside national touring shows. The energetic routines create an apt medium for the show’s torrent of lyrical silliness. Rossettis and Cornelius’ tap-dancing number to the corny tune “Cold Feets” is among the most memorable. Vocal talent is uniformly solid in the cast. Aviatrix Renee may be the strongest singer, but her character is on stage too briefly to shine brightly.
Other facets of the production enhance the illusion of quaint theatrical artifacts from a bygone era. Anna Lacivita’s costumes are simply fun — flapper dresses, knickers and spats. Anne Mundell’s scenic design brings two worlds together seamlessly on one stage, making fantastic use of movable backdrops to transport the story through time and space. Man in Chair’s home is inviting in a “Leave It to Beaver” sort of way, with his easy chair and record player at downstage right, and an outsized Philco refrigerator at the back of his center-stage kitchen.
Why the set features an outdated kitchen design while the narration is rooted in the present is unclear. Maybe this detail is meant to reinforce a sentimental yearning for the days before life became so complicated. Those days are never far from Man in Chair’s thoughts, and the palpable pain in his heart makes his story bittersweet. Wells evokes this emotional complexity masterfully.
The closest he gets to escaping the blues is when he actually joins in the marvelously madcap, misbegotten narrative of The Drowsy Chaperone. Then the show becomes a kind of meta-musical that we’re invited to laugh at and with. Playhouse audiences can expect to do a lot of both, regardless of how they feel about musicals.
The Drowsy Chaperone, produced by St. Michael’s Playhouse, McCarthy Arts Center, Colchester. Wednesday through Saturday, June 29 to July 2, 8 p.m., and Saturday, July 2, 2 p.m. $29.50-38.50. academics.smcvt.edu/playhouse