Show within a show parodies and honors Broadway

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Author: Gregory Feiner

“The Drowsy Chaperone” came to life on the Keck Theater stage April 17–19 and 24–26. The musical, directed by Theater Department Chair John Bouchard, featured a cast of student actors, glitzy costumes, catchy numbers, a small airplane and more metatheatrical gags than one might think Broadway can handle.

The show opens on a man, played by Kenyon Meleney (senior), alone in his arm chair and affected by an amorphous, untraceable sadness. He cheers himself up with a dusty vinyl recording of one of his favorite Broadway shows, “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

As the record plays, the musical comes to life—a show begins within the show. The audience meets the cast: a young couple engaged to be married; an aging dowager and her faithful, wry butler; a hammy, foreign womanizer and, of course, the Liza-Minellian titular character, the bride-to-be’s drunk-on-the-job drowsy chaperone.

The plot of the show playing from the record is straightforward. It centers on a well-known actress named Janet van de Graaf—played by Anna Warrick (sophomore)—who is giving up a successful career on the stage to marry the affable Robert Martin—played by Will Westwater* (junior)—a man who she has only recently met. The marriage concerns her producer Feldzieg, Alex Waxler’s (first-year) character, who stands to lose the star of his show. To make matters worse, an unnamed but apparently influential criminal with a large share in Feldzieg’s business has hired two interchangeable dancing gangsters—played by Rhys Hyatt (sophomore) and Taylor Robinson (first-year)—to make sure the wedding does not go on as planned. This sets up a series of antics which ultimately lead to a happy ending.

As all this happens, the Man in the Chair mentions details about the original 1920s production of the fictional musical, gives his thoughts on various scenes and attempts to fight off outside influences from ruining the show. His favorite character is Janet’s unnamed chaperone—played by Nina Carlin (senior)—who is supposed to keep the bride from seeing her fiancé on their wedding day. She is always drunk and not particularly great at her job, but she gives some memorable advice, sings the big songs and is exceptionally entertaining.

The play is paradoxically intimate and grandiose all at once. It is a lavish, 1920s Broadway escapade inside of a witty, reflective character study.

“It takes you to another world and that’s all it’s supposed to do,” Tomás Dakan (junior) said. “It’s both a parody of 1920s musicals because of its simplistic plot and extravagant characters … but it’s also a kind of love letter.”

Dakan was an ensemble member and briefly played the superintendent of the Man in the Chair’s building.

One of the ways in which the show both mocks and smiles upon the Broadway musical is its use of theatrical archetypes. They contribute to the show’s self-aware and self-deprecatory humor. Some examples of these archetypes are the characters, a tap-dancing number, a marital misunderstanding and a threadbare plot whose sole purpose is to stitch the musical numbers together.

“The show wants us to use these stereotypes in order to see partially how far we’ve come since then, but partially to have that nostalgic feel from 1920s musicals—even though no one’s ever seen a 1920s musical,” Declan Meagher (junior) said. Meagher played Aldolpho, the cartoonish Latin Lothario.

Despite the intentionally overdone aspects of the show, Bouchard worked with his actors to anchor these exaggerated characters as deeply in reality as they could.

“[Bouchard] was really interested in figuring out why the Broadway show had to be so campy,” Meagher said. “Of course, Aldolpho is a ridiculous character in general, but we did a lot of work trying to figure out what sort of authentic, real place Aldolpho can come from.”

Seeing the real emotions these characters come from is not always pleasant, particularly while watching the Man in the Chair. He spends almost the entire show alone in his apartment trying to forget that he is sad. “Drowsy” acknowledges this sadness, but disperses it with sweetness, songs and general merriment.

The Man in the Chair sums the overall sentiment up nicely at the end: “It takes you to another world. And it gives you a little tune to carry with you in your head. Something to take you away from the dreary horrors of the real world. A little something for when you’re feeling blue.”

*Will Westwater is a member of the Occidental Weekly.

 

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