by Byron Woods
Musical theater fans can be quite rigid in their tastes, and even more so once they’ve reached a certain age. Take this tart little number, whom I encountered the other night in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Mere moments from the opening curtain, he was already griping to me about the long-term decline of the American musical—and at a North Carolina Theatre show, no less: They’re too disappointing. Too long. And then there are those productions—you know, the ones where the cast comes out into the audience: “God. I didn’t pay $100,” he snarked, “to have the fourth wall come crashing down around my ears.”
“You know,” he groused, “there was a time when people sat in darkened theatres and thought to themselves, ‘What have George and Ira got for me tonight?’ Or ‘Can Cole Porter pull it off again?’”
“Can you imagine? Now, it’s ‘Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?’”
(What can I say? People have always felt that they can just open up to me.)
But this little-too-lonesome character wasn’t some crank on a night pass from assisted living in North Raleigh. The man in the chair was actually our host. (His name? Man in Chair.) And as the central figure in the musical THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, he not only ushered us into his all-time favorite night at the theater, dropping the needle on a phonograph to share the soundtrack by its original cast with us. He then proceeded to lead us on a guided personal tour of it as well, repeatedly interrupting the playback with his annotations on the careers of the performers, the mechanics of the show—and almost anything else that came to mind as the record spun. As obsessive musical theater fans will sometimes do.
And, as also sometimes happens, that musical, which becomes the play within this play, takes over and remakes his rather gray little flat into the dynamic stage of an all-singing, all-dancing (and definitely all-mugging) spectacular which supposedly bowled them over on Broadway in 1928.
But with that niggling little drawback conceded, the musical which comes back to life, before his eyes and ours, spirits us off into an escapist musical comedy about high society in the decadent ‘20s.
Or, at least, it does until the land line in his apartment rings and an answering machine turns on to take the call. Or the record starts skipping, or other examples of what our host calls “the dreary horrors of the real world” intervene.
At first it seems our host’s beloved musical has all of the iridescence—and, unfortunately, the resilience—of a soap bubble. Still, after each catastrophe, the Man (a surprising Clay Aiken) and the interrupted production recollects themselves. Then they carry on.
That musical embedded within this show is a theatrical souffle; a pastiche that faithfully honors, lampoons—and occasionally, critiques—the on- and off-stage conventions of the old-school musical comedy. “Fancy Dress,” the opening number, transparently sets up the situation—while devoting a mere four bars apiece to introduce all of the main and minor characters. (Now, that’s compositional economy.)
In its wisp of a plot, the lovely, talented—and ruthlessly unassuming—Broadway bombshell Janet Van De Graaff (Paige Faure) has just turned her back on showbiz to marry the too-perfect-to-live Robert Martin (Johnny Stellard), handsome oil heir and man about town. This development not only displeases Janet’s boss, Broadway impresario Feldzieg (hint: invert the syllables)—it angers the representatives of Feldzieg’s underworld backer, two tough-guy enforcers disguised as dessert makers (Jeremy Morse and Eric Mann).
Can Feldzieg stop the impending wedding on the estate of the dotty Mrs. Tottendale (Linda Griffin)? Can Janet’s chaperone keep her out of the clutches of Aldolpho (David Josefsberg), the notorious lothario Feldzieg’s hired to accomplish this?
These are the stakes in a loopy assortment of dance and tap routines (lovingly reconstructed by director and choreographer Casey Hushion), variety show numbers, takes (in both the spit and double varieties)—and unforgivable puns. The last include the following exchange, when the pastry chefs goons threaten Feldzieg with “a recipe for disaster” if the impending nuptuals go through: “Now, one cannoli hope we have made ourselves perfectly éclair.” In another moment, Kitty (Dana Harshaw), the wide-eyed, empty-headed showgirl begging for a part in Feldzeig's next big show boasts about her recent ballet lessons: "I'm getting pretty good, too. Last week I auditioned for Swanee Lake."
(Don’t move. The pain should subside, momentarily.)
The silliness peaks in showstoppers including “Show Off,” in which Janet learns how hard it is to get an adoring world to just stop worshipping her, damn it: “I don’t wanna change keys no more | I don’t wanna strip tease no more | I don’t wanna say cheese no more,” she begs, amid impromptu displays of apparently irrepressible talent.
That’s matched shortly after by Beatrice’s trademark rousing anthem, “As We Stumble Along.” Leavel (who originated the role on Broadway) sells the song’s distended metaphor with a collection of shameless showbiz moves that literally puts her nemesis in eclipse.
Similarly overripe analogies in Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison's libretto provide comic dividends in the romantic plea “You’re An Accident Waiting to Happen (So Hurry and Happen to Me)” and a “Bride’s Lament,” following the inevitable lover’s spat. Only the seducer’s anthem, “I Am Adolpho,” briefly overstays its welcome.
He calls a mid-show excursion into a number seemingly lifted from a retread of The King and I “a degrading piece of Chinoiserie... a slap in the face of 4000 years of Chinese history.” (We should note that North Carolina Theatre has produced that show three times, most recently in 2004). And it stings, as it should, when Robert gaily refers to “Cold Feets,” an early tap number, as “a song an old Negro taught me.” Though Aiken’s Man tells us that Chaperone’s fictional creators were "quite progressive" in casting a female African-American dancer as a black aviatrix (in the vein of Josephine Baker), playwrights Bob Martin and Don McKellar didn’t let us forget the racial dynamics in 1920s America among all the joking around.
After Adopho’s send-up of the Latin lover, the Man muses, “Mature contemporary audiences are too sophisticated to enjoy broad racial stereotypes on the stage. So we’ve banished them to Disney. Let the children sort it out.”
This production marks Clay Aiken’s return to the site of some of his earliest stage work, well before the days of American Idol and his subsequent leap to pop stardom. After a bit of digging, I found that I saw—and reviewed, for the News & Observer—the 1996 N.C. Theatre production of 1776 (in which he appeared in the modest supporting roles of A Painter and A Leather Apron), and the company’s 1997 iteration of Annie (in which he made the chorus).
Aiken surprised me, slowly turning a role that so easily qualifies as a stereotype itself—a somewhat catty musical theater fiend, of ambiguous sexual orientation—into a character whose wit, insight and increasing poignancy ultimately moved me. Though his makeup needed further tweaks to reflect the true age of the Man in Chair, I found I cared a lot more about Aiken's character, under Hushion’s direction, than the lead who played to the same house in the professional touring version in 2008.
In these hands, we spend some time in a small room with a man who is—and, suddenly, isn’t—quite alone. Bette Davis was right when she once observed that old age is not for sissies. In this production, a daffy musical comedy—and a vivid world that reconstitutes whenever a phonograph record plays—provides an aging man with hidden, formidable resources. Hushion and Aiken find the heart in The Drowsy Chaperone. I’m pleased to report that its pulse is quite strong.