Looking at the marquees up and down Theatre Row in the Big Apple, it's hard to think we're still in the 21st century. Revivals of classic musicals such as Dames at Sea and The King and I have found newly-realized productions and, subsequently, new audiences who realize the importance of these shows. But in a renaissance of bringing in the old, something new must come in and poke fun at this revival of seemingly simpler times.
Drowsy's central concept is to put the audience in the world of pure escapist fantasy, or what our narrator, the unnamed "Man in Chair," says musicals "used to be."
"You remember," he squeaks to the spectators, also seated comfortably in chairs, "when musicals weren't realistic and you came to the theatre to escape life!" Though this statement is sharp and a bit forceful in its weight, the production is never confused about what it is.
Man in Chair tells us that when life begins to get him down, he likes to escape into the world of musicals, his favorite being a show called The Drowsy Chaperone, a marital game of mix-ups, whose characters and stories are as thin as the wallpaper that decorates the elaborate 1920s set behind them (scenic designer Michael Harbeck's crowning achievement). Yet the irony of the musical is that we are so captivated by this other world, one where double entendre and wide-eyed naiveté mix like one of the title character's frequent cocktails. Musicals have become a means of escape once again.
Our only grounding in reality is the reliable narrator, whose quips and trivia about the show give watching this production a measure of glee that I wish were made manifest in many others. As our narrator, the handsome William Valles embodied an old nebbish theatre lover with such joy, he looked as if he might explode at times – and we might too, from our happiness that this narrator loves theatre as much as we do. Remembering the fact that musicals can't be all fun and games or we couldn't take them seriously, Valles endowed his unnamed character with enough psychological depth to humor Sigmund Freud
As with every UNCSA production I have had the pleasure to experience, the ensemble was a standout. In Drowsy, the singing and dancing from all participants rivaled all musical theatre programs around the area. Highlights included a "Singin' in the Rain"-type tap number involving Mason Hensley and T.J. Nelson, Beth Hawkes' scenes, Isaac Powell's and Ethan Nienaber's dancing gangsters, and Savannah-Lee Mumford's "As We Stumble Along," which pushed the American musical's "11 o-clock number" to around 8:45, gloriously stopping (and stealing) the show for a few minutes.
There was whimsy in this production, in the innocence of the actors, that was lost in last year's extravagant production of Guys and Dolls. The actors in The Drowsy Chaperone never winked at the audience or were even half aware they looked as foolish as they did roller-skating around stage, breaking into tap dance numbers at the drop of a cane, or even replaying a spit take as our narrator explains why that scene "just doesn't work." It exuded the same innocent comedy we find when we watch episodes of The Brady Bunch.
Director Matt Loer has a knack for this time period, as does New York music director Steve Freeman, who leads an orchestra of alumni and students with pure Broadway professionalism. Noah Timner's lighting dresses Harbeck's set with lush washes and special colors that enhance the transportation into this other world. Jen Gillette's period costumes (and the changes) at times earned applause from Thursday's audience, especially one quick change done by Hawkes in Act I. Unfortunately, the program did not seem to list a choreographer – sad because the dance numbers in this production were brilliantly realized. (So whoever you are, excellent job!)
After the intellectually stimulating Arcadia, The Drowsy Chaperone is lighter fare for audiences and just as satisfying. So for those who may be feeling, like our narrator, a bit blue, and needing to be reminded of the beauty of the human spirit, bring your biggest smile to the Gerald Freeman Theater as soon as you can. It's that good.
The show continues through Saturday, December 5. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.