By Susan Nolan
The Drowsy Chaperone may not be the best-known musical on the theater circuit. Even Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre director Jason Vellon admits in his Director’s Notes that audiences fall into two camps—”those who love it and those who have no idea of what it is about.”
Yet, its 19-month, 2006-2007 Broadway run resulted in five Tony Awards, including Best Original Score for composers/songwriters Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and Best Book for a Musical for writers Bob Martin and Don McKellar. That’s not too shabby for a parody-piece initially written to be performed at Martin’s 1997 stag party. In fact, the bride and groom characters were named for Martin and his wife, Canadian actress Janet Van De Graff.
ASGT’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone opens in darkness with a lonely Broadway aficionado simply known as Man in Chair (Tom Wyatt) bemoaning the lack of glamour in modern entertainment. He suffers from what he calls “a non-specific sadness.” Looking to cure his blues, he plays a recording of his favorite musical—the fictitious hit The Drowsy Chaperone. As the needle hits the vinyl, the original 1929 cast enters his apartment. Their singing and dancing transport him and the audience to Prohibition-era Broadway.
In this play-within-a-play, musical star Janet Van De Graff (Kaitlin Arnold) is about to give up her career to marry oil-tycoon Robert Martin (Kyle Eshom). They and their guests have arrived at the home of their hostess, the ditzy widow Mrs. Tottendale (Sarah Mitchell) and are served by her dutiful butler, Underling (Gene Valendo). Best man George (Matthew Rigby) insists on keeping the bride and groom apart until the ceremony. He agrees to keep an eye on the groom and trusts the drowsy—really, tipsy—chaperone (Traci Denhardt) to do the same for the bride.
Meanwhile, the producer Feldzeig (Matthew Gray) plots to foil the wedding while contending with tough-talking gangsters (Conner Bland and Meridian Toalepai) and wannabe showgirl Kitty (Kristi Dixon). An amorous Italian ladies’ man (Josh Mooney) and daring aviatrix (Ellen Quay) round out the cast.
Identities are mistaken. Misunderstandings ensue. The wedding is canceled, but because this is a musical comedy, the Man in Chair is guaranteed his happy ending. After all, as Mrs. Tottendale reminds us in song, “Love is always lovely in the end.” Or is it?
The plot is silly—like a good spoof should be. It’s filled with kitschy gags and the archetypical characters we expect to find in any 1920s comedy. The storyline employs spit-takes, wise-guy lingo, time distortions, and a deus ex machina. The Drowsy Chaperone is parody at its best—and the ASGT cast is masterful in its delivery.
Wyatt plays the nameless Main in Chair with perfect comedic timing and touching humanity. Throughout the grand musical, his character brings the audience in and out of reality by sharing tantalizing gossip about the stars and revealing his own personal disappointments. Arnold and Eshom shine as the bride and groom—their on-stage chemistry is magical. As a grande dame of the stage playing an inebriated, aging chaperone, Denhardt is stunning.
The supporting roles get some of the biggest laughs. Dixon is hilarious as Kitty, especially when she reveals that—perhaps—she’s smarter than anyone expects. Bland and Toalepai are delightful in their roles as mobsters masquerading as pastry chefs. Mitchell’s forgetful Mrs. Tottendale is unforgettable.
As expected, ASGT has come through with another show that does not disappoint. The costumes have the glitz and glamour of flappers and gin-running gents. The set is ingenious. The choreography is exciting; the music gives life to it all. I arrived as someone who had no idea of what it was about and left firmly in the camp of those who loved it.
The Drowsy Chaperone runs through Sept. 4. ThFSaSu 8:30pm, Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre, $27, RSVP: summergarden.com.