“It does what a musical is supposed to do; it takes you to another world . . . a little something for when you’re feeling blue.”—Man in Chair
Home Made Theater’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone captures the Toronto Fringe Festival roots of this happy musical. The Drowsy Chaperone is a love letter both to classic musical theater and its fans. While The Drowsy Chaperone moved up from Canadian fringe niche to Broadway Tony Award-winning musical hit to soon-to-be Hollywood blockbuster starring Geoffrey Rush, HMT’s homespun values play out earnestly, true to the soul of the energetic and eclectic eccentricities of Toronto’s annual theater hodgepodge.
Director Dawn Oesch scores in casting JJ Buechner as “Man in Chair,” a fussy, cardigan-wearing musical theater aficionado who huddles in his stage right armchair next to his record player–“yes, records” he tells the audience, emphasizing “records” as if he were speaking to incredibly aged listeners–to take the audience along as his imagination creates The Drowsy Chaperone, a fictional 1928 musical, in his apartment. “You hear the static? I love that sound. To me, it’s the sound of a time machine starting up,” he tells the audience, listening to the pops and hiss of the overture, asking them to imagine the “Morosco Theatre in New York, 1928.” The constant appeal to nostalgia and its attendant sentiments is the stuff that theater love is made of.
HMT’s stagecraft is perfect. Lights dim randomly, the sound echoes hollowly, the costumes are tacky: It’s earnest and real, low-budget but high-energy. There’s no flash and splash of Broadway, but a tongue-in-cheek homage to classic musical theater.
Man in Chair’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things musical theater enlivens the clichéd plot: An oil tycoon (Richard Jones) is about to marry an ingénue Broadway star (Christine Meglino) after a whirlwind romance. There’s a forgetful Best Man (Johnny Martinez), an oblivious Margaret Dumont-esque matron (Darlene Kelly) hosting the soon-to-be wedding, a faithfully becalmed butler (David Dixon), a conniving Broadway producer (Michael McDermott) in hock to some gangsters (Chris Cucinella, Nik Gatzendorfer), a no-talent blonde bimbo (Arlette St. Romain), a notorious Latin lover on the prowl (Shawn Morgan), a bevy of becoming maids (Dianne Desantis, Stephanie Goodman, KT Hart, Deborah Otto-Jones) who sing and occasionally tap dance (Andrea Burger), and the title character (Lesley O’Donnell), a practiced drunk (“drowsy” = blitzed) who brings the impending marriage to a crashing halt before the “all’s well that end’s well” marriages of four couples by an “Aviatrix” (Jessica Byrnes Cheong), who drops in before finishing her flight to Rio.
This is a musical parody, after all, and silliness rules the day. The highlights of HMT’s production are O’Donnell’s boozy, Judy Garlandish belting of “As We Stumble Along,” Morgan’s braggart lover in “I Am Aldolpho,” the moment when the record skips, forcing the full cast onstage to repeat a dozen times “Then You Got a Tol-ee,” complete with rhythmic movement, and the finale, when Man in Chair moves from loving outsider to beloved insider. Befitting its birth and roots, The Drowsy Chaperone is more at home in the cozy aesthetics of community theater than in the polished perfection of professional theater. As Man in Chair says, “charming,” and it’s tough to argue with him.