Still like those old time musicals: SpeakEasy’s “The Drowsy Chaperone”

by Bryce Lambert on May 26, 2011

Part satire and part testament to the magic and escapism of classic musicals, SpeakEasy’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone is a perfectly executed comic romp through what is both musical theater’s golden age and awkward adolescence. It’s difficult to leave the BCA not thoroughly loving the show, just as our narrator Man in Chair (Will McGarrahan) loves classic musicals for all their flaws and nonsensical plot points. Yes, The Drowsy Chaperone is a witty bit of satire, but mostly it activates the same endorphins as the 1920s musicals it satirizes do. And for those that will take the anemic plots and gratuitous song and dance routines of the classics over the talk-singing and pop fusion of today’s musicals, this is for you. The Drowsy Chaperone serves up all the lovable trappings–tap dancing routines, stock characters, sight gags–of the classics with some well crafted satirical wit from its meta show inside a show structure.

Our narrator Man in Chair (Will McGarrahan) begins by telling us from a darkened stage that he hates theater and wistfully imagines what it must have been like to go to a show and get the latest Gershwin. The lights come up revealing a nervous misanthropic musical theater nut (certainly more geek than queen), closeted away in a drab apartment with his mother’s records. Even if his tastes may run towards Gershwin, he chooses to play The Drowsy Chaperone for us, a little farce of a musical that collects a Latin Lothario, a shiny-suited producer with a screechy-voiced aspiring star in tow, an aloof butler, two corny mobsters posing as pastry chefs putting the squeeze on the producer, a Black Amelia Earhart, a flaky old dame, a young love-struck groom whose father has “oil interests,” the object of his affections, a vain Broadway star looking to settle down as a bride, her drunken chaperone, and their wedding planner in a big old house for the wedding of the young couple.

SpeakEasy Stage The Drowsy Chaperone

McCaela Donovan (center, as Broadway star Janet Van de Graff) and members of the company perform "Toledo Surprise" (Stratton McCrady)

With the record spinning, in a literalization of his imagination, the Man in Chair’s kitchen parts (thanks to designer Jenna McFarland Lord), revealing an appropriately campy set for this musical inside a play. With this wedding’s guest list, imagine the plot that ensues! McGarrahan, with an endearing and hilarious quirkiness watches ecstatically, his character sometimes offering us clever mockumentary like bits of backstage trivia to buttress the comedy that’s already there, in the wacky plot, wackier lyrics, some brilliantly rendered tap routines, and the pastry puns that soften the mobsters’ threats on the producer’s well being.

SpeakEasy has given us a well balanced production of this show that is both a celebration of musical theater and a mocking meta-satire of it. It mixes what looks to me like pure revelry of the form and culture with musical pastiche and gimmicks, like the action skipping when the record does…or the snarky number from another musical that goes “what is it about the Asians that fascinates us Caucasians” our Man in Chair accidentally plays when he puts on the wrong record.

Perhaps it’s this nameless Man in Chair character that’s the most delicate balancing act. For as much as he’s a guy with an endearing passion for musicals and capable of great joy while watching them, he’s a lonely shut-in who doesn’t even pick up his phone, much less go to the theater.

Speakeasy’s The Drowsy Chaperone runs through June 19th at the BCA. Tickets @ bostontheatrescene.com for about $50.

SpeakEasy Stage Drowsy Chaperone

Karen MacDonald (as The Chaperone) and Thomas Derrah (as Aldolpho) (Stratton McCrady)

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