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Regional Reviews by Gavin Logan

The Drowsy Chaperone

When it premiered on Broadway in 2006, The Drowsy Chaperone was an instant success, garnering Tony Awards for Score, Book, Costumes, Scenic Design, and Featured Actress. In Canada, many newspapers devoted substantial portions of their arts feature to the story because it was a home-grown success. The musical, conceived by an all-Canadian writing team consisting of Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics) and Don McKellar and Bob Martin (book), was originally written as a stag-night spoof for Bob Martin and his fiancée. It was later revised for the Toronto Fringe Festival in 1999, expanded for a Theatre Passe Muraille production, and passed through a try-out appearance in Los Angeles before premiering in its current incarnation on Broadway in 2006.

Now, in a co-production with the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, The Drowsy Chaperone makes its Alberta debut at Theatre Calgary, and Canadians are once again celebrating their own homegrown gem. Before a packed house on opening night, Artistic Director Dennis Garnhum enthused excitedly about the fact that the entire cast was Canadian. Whether or not this fact has had an impact on the performances themselves is uncertain, but one thing I can say with certainty is this: Theatre Calgary and the Manitoba Theatre Centre have another great big, smashing, hysterical hit on their hands. The cast and crew assembled by the two theatre companies are an incredibly talented bunch, displaying impressive stamina, comic timing, and panache in tackling a difficult piece.

The plot of The Drowsy Chaperone is not difficult to follow—a lonely man (Man in Chair) stays home night after night, feeling "non-specifically blue," and invites the audience to indulge with him in his favourite obsession, er, pastime: listening to his favourite record, a recording of the 1920s musical The Drowsy Chaperone. As he plays the record, his living room magically transforms into a Broadway stage, whilst the characters from Chaperone appear to re-enact their own zany tale—a goofy hodgepodge of 1920s musical comedy stereotypes, plotlines, and musical styles including self-centred starlets, love struck grooms, beleaguered best friends, Latin lotharios, and a deus ex machina. On Theatre Calgary's stage, this premise is beautifully executed.

Making her Theatre Calgary debut as Janet Van De Graaff, the star of the follies who wants to give it all up for love, is Naomi Costain. Costain is hilarious in the role, making the most of the ridiculous situations in which she finds herself. The two show-stopping numbers given to Van De Graaff ("Show Off" and "Monkey on a Pedestal") are delivered beautifully with just the right amount of vanity and vulnerability. Costain manages to balance the line between absurdism and pathos very well, overcoming even the (intended) stupidity of such lyrics as "Monkey, monkey, monkey/ you broke my heart in two" to find, underneath the 1920s superficiality, a truly likeable egotist.

As Robert Martin, the bridegroom, Todd Talbot is delightful. Of special note are his spectacular tap dancing skills. In the duo "Cold Feets" Talbot and Timothy Gledhill, as Robert's harried best man George, are simply superb, staying pitch-perfect whilst athletically and gracefully tackling the difficult tap routine. Similarly, the duo of Eric S. Robertson and Stephen Cota deserve kudos as a pair of gangsters disguised as pastry chefs. Robertson and Cota are spectacular; every entry and exit are executed with precision and perfect unison. The gangsters' big moment comes in the charming "Toledo Surprise"—which is undoubtedly a loving homage to the gangsters-turned-thespians in Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate. This song also deserves mention for the clever "sight gag" which is incorporated to remind us once more that we're really just listening to an old record: As the ensemble reaches the climax of the song, Man in Chair's record "skips", causing the last notes and dance steps to be repeated until the Man in Chair can reset the record. This, too, is executed in perfect unison by the talented ensemble.

Theatre Calgary pulls off a minor coup in casting the talented Adam Brazier as Aldolpho, surely the show's most ridiculous hysterical role. Brazier, who has created roles in two of Andrew Lloyd Webber's recent shows (Walter Hartwright in The Woman in White on Broadway, and Dr. Barnardo in The Likes of Us in London's West End) simply nails the role. Brazier has a gorgeous baritone voice, displayed remarkably in Aldolpho's hilarious song of seduction, "I Am Aldolpho." Brazier swaggers and parades around the stage like Zorro on Viagra, chewing the scenery and stealing every scene. Also hysterical, and completely non-politically correct, is Brazier's performance as a Chinese emperor at the start of act two when Man in Chair accidentally places the wrong record on the turntable. Brazier doesn't miss a single laugh.

While the entire cast is remarkable in this production, none of this superficiality and zaniness would have any purpose or meaning without Man in Chair to act not only as our host and guide through the show, but also as the grounding; while the show is a light-hearted love letter to the frivolous days of early musical theatre escapism, the character of Man in Chair is always present to remind us that times have indeed changed—and not necessarily for the better. In this pivotal role, Dean Paul Gibson is simply stunning. Gibson, who directed last year's wonderful production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, this time around displays his significant acting chops. His Man in Chair is a heartbreaking case, but in Gibson's expert hands, the audience doesn't know this right away. Indeed, at the start of the evening it is easy enough to laugh outright at Man in Chair, a silly, foolish little man sequestered in his apartment. However, as the show progresses, Gibson's delivery and entire demeanor changes. It very quickly becomes not humourous but almost sad to watch as Man in Chair rails against society, against the inevitable changes we must all face, even though many of us, like Man in Chair, are not properly equipped to handle them. Gibson's Man in Chair is incapable of making a connection outside of his records. It is Gibson's performance that brilliantly keeps the entire show from becoming a ridiculous farce. At the end of the evening, I felt tears pricking the corners of my eyes as I watched Gibson enter into his dream world one last time and happily "fly away" with the characters on his record—tears because, as happy as Man in Chair was at that moment, it is, in the end, only a dream. It is Gibson's fine performance throughout the evening that culminates in this entirely bittersweet finale.

Theatre Calgary has once again produced an incredible interpretation of a difficult piece of musical theatre. While ostensibly a light-hearted farce, director Steven Schipper has found the perfect amount of cynicism and world-weariness in this script and has focused just the right amount of attention on these elements. The result is magnificent, touching, a little bit gloomy, but also with glimmers of hope.

Theatre Calgary's production of The Drowsy Chaperoneruns in Calgary, Alberta through March 6th, 2011. For more information visit theatrecalgary.com.

--Gavin Logan



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