The premise of The Drowsy Chaperone — the Canadian-born winner of the 2007 Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score of a new musical, and one of the most clever, thoughtful, and delightful shows ever to play The Great White Way — couldn’t be simpler: Man in Chair (the wondrous Scott Treadway) suffers from “nonspecific sadness” and attempts to cheer himself up by playing an old recording of his favorite, forgotten Broadway musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, a perfect piece of piffle from 1928.
This Drowsy Chaperone is, of course, entirely imaginary, but draws on all the goofy elements that made musicals of the jazz age such glorious entertainments: lovers confused, sundered, and brought back together; a star of Broadway (Erin Mosher) who wants to retire from the stage, to the dismay of her producer (Preston Dyar), who’s being threatened by hired gangsters disguised as bakers (Chris Faith and Jason Elliott Brown) while being courted by a ditsy dame (Ellie Mooney) who wants to marry him and become a star herself; a rich older woman (Jane Bushway) who has an unusual relationship (including an extended series of spit takes) with her butler, Underling (Peter Thomasson); a Latin Lothario (James Donegan); even an aviatrix (Courtney Daniels), who ends up flying everyone to Rio … The music is a marvelous pastiche of the popular song styles of the era, and the lyrics are loving and mocking and revelatory of the distance we’ve traveled from then to now.
The conceit that makes the show enchanting is that the musical comes fully to life right in Man in Chair’s apartment, complete with all the glitz and glamour of settings and costumes from immediately pre-Depression theatre. Most important, Man in Chair narrates and comments upon the story, and fills in a ton of star-struck trivialities about the original production, its performers, and their fates. Fantastical things happen, too, when Man in Chair accidentally puts on the wrong record for Act Two, when the needle gets stuck, and when there’s a blackout.
What lifts the show a cut above stylistic parody — the nod-and-wink humor whereby we feel ourselves superior to the trifles celebrated in the past — is Man in Chair’s passionate efforts to engage us fully in what he loves so well, and the step-by-step revelation of hints of the personal troubles that make immersion in this musical more important to him than his life itself.
Though Flat Rock has mounted The Drowsy Chaperone with its newfound, fierce professionalism, the results remain poised somewhere between full-blown Broadway sizzle and routine summer-stock efforts — a trap from which the company may not fully emerge unless and until it finds a way to extend its painfully short rehearsal periods.
All of the performers are enormously skilled and dedicated (including the live musicians); and the director, choreographer, designers, and stagehands do more-than-yeoman service. But two performers, as of the second airing of this production, stand out as fully inhabiting their roles: Michele Ragusa, who hilariously embodies the titular character, The Drowsy Chaperone herself (in this case, “drowsy” means “partial to drink”) and the aforementioned Scott Treadway.
Treadway, Flat Rock’s associate artistic director, has been a beloved star with the company for decades, and all his finest qualities are brought to bear here. He is relentlessly funny; he brings warmth, energy and intelligence to everything he does; and he can make you feel a character’s depth even as he dances lightly on its surface. One can’t help but love his rubberized face, which flawlessly transmits every thought and emotion, however fleeting; and his rapport with his audience — facilitated, here, by perpetual direct address — might be matched by others but never exceeded. Watch, too, towards the end, as the cast of the 1928 Drowsy Chaperone absorbs Man in Chair into its world. The transcendent expression on Treadway’s face is effortless, endearing and priceless.
The Drowsy Chaperone, book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. Directed by William Roudebush. Choreographer: Ellie Mooney. Casting Director and Artistic Consultant: Dave Clemmons. Scenic Design: Dennis C. Maulden. Costume Design: Janine Marie McCabe. Lighting Design: Stephen Terry. Sound Design: Allan Sanders. Properties Master: Paul Feraldi. Technical Director: Bruce R. Bailey. Musical Director: George Wilkins, Jr. Stage Manager: Bill Muñoz.
With Scott Treadway (Man in Chair); Jane Bushway (Mrs. Tottendale); Peter Thomasson (Underling); Austin Owen (Robert Martin); Sean Watkins (George); Preston Dyar (Feldzieg); Kitty (Ellie Mooney); James Donegan (Aldolpho); Erin Mosher (Janet Van De Graaff); Michele Ragusa (The Drowsy Chaperone); Courtney Daniels (Trix); Chris Faith (Gangster); Jason Elliott Brown (Gangster); Jason Elliott Brown, Chris Faith, Lindsay Nantz, and Brenna Yeary (Ensemble).
Conductor and Pianist: George Wilkins, Jr. Percussion: Paul Babelay. Violin: Ralph Congdon. Bass: Grant Cuthbertson. Keyboards: Matt Foglia. Reeds: Joel Helfand. Trumpet: Gary Leming.
Shows Wednesdays through Sundays through October 17. $40 or $30 for students.Tickets at 693-0731 or (866) 732-8008. http://www.flatrockplayhouse.org.