The Drowsy Chaperone
Like the musical Chicago, and Follies before that, Chaperone revives the 100-year-old conventions of Vaudeville, with passing nods to ventriloquist acts and mind readers (and more shtick and campy songs than anyone would care to admit), draped over the simple story of young lovers torn apart. In his drab apartment, the Man in Chair lovingly narrates this 1928 musical comedy as it unfolds before us, while his sundry biographical data on the cast adds an unexpectedly topical and bizarre dimension to the unwinding story. And somehow, thanks to his heart-felt devotion and lots of impeccable singing and dancing, it all seems more like real art than you might ever expect.
In the play-within, Tari Kelly is the ingénue giving up stage stardom for the son of an oil magnate (David Elder), and both are delightfulshe, looking a bit like Christine Baranski in her curling red hair; and he, looking exactly like the perfect leading man. Everyone else is part of a big joke machine: Christine Tisdale as the Chaperone of the title, and Ed Romanoff as the desperate theatrical producer; Brian Ogilvie as the best man; and Ben Nordstrom and Michael Baxter as two easily distracted gangsters. Any one of them could easily star in, or possibly even direct, just about any classic musical you'd care to name. Kari Ely is the ditzy dowager and John Alban Coughlan is her terribly grave manservant, and Melinda Cowan and Edward Juvier are surprisingly believable as crazy cut-out stock characters: the clueless chorine and the would-be Latin lover. Mr. Juvier is the largest, but surprisingly the most light-on-his-feet: a fact that never fails to delight and amaze. Local favorite Zoe Vonder Haar pops in and out like Glinda the Good Witch, with great comic zeal (though somewhat unaccountably) as an aviatrix, and ultimately a more than figurative deus ex machina.
The whole 1928 story comes madly alive as Mr. Schmittou puts on a pair of old 12" LPs, re-mastered from the original recordings, and (of course) every imaginable thing that could possibly go awry with the records, the record player and the simple surroundings themselves does go wrong. And yet, because the Man in Chair is so simply likable, and vaguely troubled, we grow to fear for his own happiness even more than he seems to fear for the fate of these long-forgotten entertainers, as he goes through his ritual of guided meditation and healing. There's something so mysteriously, vitally important about this recording to him, that we just have to help him get through the evening one way or another, in spite of the embarrassingly silly story he so adoringly lays out.
Finally, late in the evening, the Man in Chair has to explain what "blue mood" drove him to play this particular Broadway cast recording in the first place, on this particular night. And that's where we get to the nub of it all: for this is also the story of why a certain kind of man (gay or straight) truly loves musical comedy, though perhaps he's never set foot on the stage himself. The terrible struggles of his heart, and his seemingly impossible chances for happiness, can only be knit-up by the needle of a record player, through musical comedy and romance, tragedy and ironythe whole dramatic wheel itself. The inner-play, The Drowsy Chaperone (or Mame, for that matter, or The King And I) becomes a private organizing system for a fan's shaken soul: a place where all sorts of unbearable emotions can be neatly pigeon-holed and contextualized into a more survivable world-view. For, no matter how bleak things look at the end of Side A, it's a cinch that 23 minutes later, on Side B, everything will work out just fine in the end. And the fact that Mr. Schmittou and everyone else on stage can actually make this gleefully silly tale seem like such a workable design for living makes all their stories worth spinning, again and again.
Through August 16, 2009 at the Robert Reim Theatre, in the Kirkwood (Missouri) Community Center, 111 South Geyer Rd. For information, call the office at (636) 530-5959 or the box office at (314) 821-2407, or visit them online at www.stagesstlouis.org.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association
Photo by Whitney Curtis