By Matthew Waterman | H-T Reviewer
It’s probably a good thing that today’s musicals have (mostly) progressed beyond the stock characters and crude stereotypes that dominated Broadway in the 1920s. But who doesn’t occasionally lament that modern Broadway composers don’t churn out catchy hits the way George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers did in their era?
The musicals of the Jazz Age still have their allure for many theatergoers, one of them being the main character of this season’s final mainstage production for the Indiana University Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance. We never discover his name; he’s simply billed as “Man in Chair.”
The production, directed by Kenneth L. Roberson, is called “The Drowsy Chaperone.” It’s a show-within-a-show; specifically, a glitzy, old-fashioned musical within a one-man play.
It works like this: Man in Chair, at home in his lonely apartment, gives the audience a guided tour through one of his most cherished records: the cast recording of a fictional classic musical called “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Although the visual aspects are all in Man in Chair’s head, a cast of several dozen actors emerges and brings the musical to life.
The show-within-the-show is a perfect blend of an homage to 1920s Broadway and a satire of it. All the familiar stock characters are there: a greedy producer, a ditzy showgirl, a “Latin” (yet European) lover, an English butler and (this one might be unique) a pair of New York gangsters disguised as pastry chefs.
At the center of it all is the wedding of Robert Martin and Janet Van De Graaff. Janet is Broadway starlet planning to give up her stage career for married life. Feldzieg is a moneygrubbing producer determined to stop the wedding so he can continue to profit off of Janet’s talent. The wedding is also jeopardized by Robert’s actions, taken with the ill advice of his best man, George.
Man in Chair peppers the show with snarky quips and short monologues, sometimes offering a bit of insight into his own life. He’s a reclusive, perhaps agoraphobic man who takes pleasure in little besides his records. Since the characters of the show-within-the-show are so vapid, it helps that Man in Chair has something of a backstory to his character, albeit a slightly underwritten one.
George Pinney plays Man in Chair. He’s a recently retired professor of musical theater at IU, but this is his first time acting, rather than directing or choreographing, in decades. There are moments when Pinney searches for a line or flubs a joke, but he certainly captures the essence of the role.
The actors of the show-within-the-show embrace the overstated corniness of their roles. Julia Thorn is Kitty, the extraordinarily stupid chorus girl vying to replace Janet as Feldzieg’s starlet. Courtney Reid Harris plays a senile and ultra-posh Mrs. Tottendale. Miles Tillman makes for an amusing Aldolpho, the dim-witted foreign womanizer. (The character is a stereotype meant to poke fun at the racism of the era.)
The leading couple, Robert and Janet, is portrayed by Matthew Weidenbener and Claire Logan. Logan’s rendition of “Show Off” is a highlight, as is her Act II opener, “Bride’s Lament.” Weidenbener shines along with Colin LeMoine in a tap-dancing duo, “Cold Feets.”
The ensemble singing, padded by 10 orchestra pit singers, really packs a punch. The dancing, choreographed by Liza Gennaro, is similarly impressive.
Scenic designer Ryan P. Miller rose to the challenge of creating a set that doubles as an old man’s apartment and a stage for a flashy Broadway musical. Chen Chen’s costumes and Bridget Williams’ lighting also help transport the audience from a dingy modern apartment to the Roaring ’20s.
To appreciate “The Drowsy Chaperone,” one should probably have a taste for cheesy musicals, but also a willingness to make fun of them. The show-within-the-show is no work of literary genius, and the one-man play framing it would be a bit depressing in isolation, but all put together, “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a funny and entertaining outing.
If You Go
WHO: IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance.
WHAT: “The Drowsy Chaperone” by Bob Martin, Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Ruth N. Halls Theatre in the Norvelle Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave., Bloomington.
TICKETS: $15-$25. Call 812-855-1103 or visit theatre.indiana.edu.
Reprinted with permission from The Herald Times. For more local arts news, visit http://www.heraldtimesonline.com.