With the stage still in darkness, a disembodied voice expresses the speaker’s dislike for plays that require theatre-goers to interact with performers who break the traditional fourth wall. When the lights rise on the latest Guild Theatre production, the speaker does precisely that, by addressing the audience directly. For the duration of the evening, things are not necessarily what they seem.
At the start, the character known as Man in Chair sits alone in a nondescript apartment, preparing to listen (for the umpteenth time) to his favourite record—the cast recording of a 1928 Broadway musical called The Drowsy Chaperone. Immediately, his apartment becomes transformed into an elaborate theatre set on which the action of the fictional piece unfolds spectacularly in his reverie.
“We’re at liberty to be as bold, or to have as much fun as we want, because the Man in Chair has never actually seen the show,” said director Jessica Hickman. “This is all through their imagination as they’re listening to the record and sort of picturing in their mind what the show would have been like on Broadway if they had had a chance to see it.”
Hickman, whose resumé includes numerous Yukon credits as both choreographer and director, considers it a “wonderful opportunity” to present a large-cast musical in a small black-box theatre, with no capacity to fly elaborate set pieces in and out.
“I love that restraint, because it just forces us to be a bit more creative,” she said of the challenges she had to address with set designer Brian Fidler. “How can we change the Man in Chair’s apartment to a 1920s lavish, wealthy manor and then go back to the apartment a moment later? We’ve been having a lot of fun digging into those elements.”
The Guild production also offers interesting challenges and opportunities to the actor-singers who carry the action. Unlike most traditional musical comedies, The Drowsy Chaperone isn’t built around a core cast of leading performers who are reinforced by various secondary roles.
“Every character gets a song and every character gets featured, so it’s great for community theatres, it’s great for schools, because it’s not just two leads and the rest are backup. Everybody gets their shots,” Hickman said. An additional challenge in what is often called “a musical within a comedy” is the fact that the actors are expected to play their roles as they would have been performed by specific vaudeville and musical comedy performers of the era.
“As actors, we always try to have deep, honest performances. This show can have that, but it also has to be a nod to the time period and the style of acting that was happening in the ’20s, which is over-the-top and fun and silly.”
On top of that challenge, the principal performers in the 14-member Guild version will also be tackling minor roles as reporters, maids and even monkeys, all which would normally be done by separate ensemble players.
“It’s a lot of tracking the actors, and organization to make sure their costume changes will work and that everyone has time to switch between. That’s been a lot of the prep work, logistically, for this production,” Hickman admitted.
As well as being an homage to the 1920s heyday of the Great White Way, when vaudeville was beginning the transition to book musicals, it is also a parody of that genre, with definite comic challenges.
“Almost every single line in the show is hilarious, so it’s trying to figure out how to guide the actors through that process without having them trying to be funny. It’s just finding honest performances and hopefully that comedy comes through.”
Hickman’s husband, Brooke Maxwell, is the show’s musical director. As a professional musician and music teacher who is relatively new to musical comedy, he also values honesty and “humanity” above even technical excellence in the performances.
“When someone has a beautiful instrument of their voice, that’s not the guarantee to my heart. The humanity that they’re able to portray is,” Maxwell said. “We’re dealing with real people in community theatre who are absolutely loving it. That’s what they start with. They bring that. They are working their butts off and singing with this level of passion.”
For the Guild production, the role of Man in Chair has been translated to Woman in Chair, featuring Sophia Marnik. Telek Rogan will handle the Drowsy Chaperone role. Others in the cast include James McCullough (Robert), Annie O’Connor (Janet), Dave Paquet (George), Breagha Fraser (Kitty), Stephen Dunbar-Edge (Underling), Brett Chandler (Mr. Feldzieg), Roy Ness (Adolpho), Odile Nelson (Mrs. Tottendale), and Fiona Azizaj (Trix). Brenda Barnes and James Croken will play Gangsters one and two, respectively, while Lindy-Jo Astin will play the Superintendent.
From Wedding Skit to Broadway Hit
The story behind the multiple award-winning “musical within a comedy” known as The Drowsy Chaperone could easily inspire a musical comedy of its own. It began in 1977, when a group of Canadian theatre artists, including Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, cobbled together an evening of party fare before the wedding of their friends, actor-comedians Bob Martin and Janet van der Graaf. As a spoof of stage musicals of the 1920s through the 1940s, with witty banter added, it may have resembled an evening around the piano with the likes of Jerome Kern or Cole Porter.
From this modest beginning, it morphed into a popular entry in the Toronto Fringe Festival that happened to catch the eye of impresario David Mirvish, who bankrolled an expanded version that played at Theatre Passe Muraille in 1999. By this time, Martin himself was part of the team, co-writing the book with McKellar, while Lambert and Morrison provided both music and lyrics. It was Martin who introduced the pivotal Man in Chair character whose imagination summons up a full-blown staging of a fictional 1928 Broadway musical, and provides running commentary for the audience, almost like a Greek chorus.
Following much revision, expansion and development, as well as an out-of-town run in Los Angeles, The Drowsy Chaperone made its Broadway debut on May 1, 2006. It quickly garnered five Tony Awards and numerous other honours before going on to become one of the most successful Canadian entries in the modern musical theatre canon (perhaps second only to Come From Away). Amply loaded with 1920s-era Broadway allusions and inside gags (Robert Martin is an oil tycoon on the brink of marrying Feldzieg Follies star Janet Van De Graaff), it has become a world-wide theatre staple.
In brief, a pair of gangsters pressure Feldzieg to prevent Janet’s wedding, to protect their boss’s investment in the Follies. Feldzieg engages an incompetent lothario, Alphonso, to seduce Janet so that Robert will cancel the wedding. Meanwhile, Janet’s alcoholic chaperone, fails in her assignment to keep the happy couple separated before the nuptials take place, and falls under the spell of Alphonso, who mistakes her for Janet.
Victoria-based Brooke Maxwell, musical director of the Guild Theatre’s production that open April 4, said the show “blew [his] mind, both in the sculpting craftsmanship of the comedy, as well as the musical integration and the sort of tribute to the era.” It’s Maxwell’s second outing as musical director of the show. He said he laments the fact that many current musicals don’t provide “improvisational vehicles” for jazz musicians, as earlier musicals do.
“You don’t hear the jazz guys jamming on songs from The Lion King. They just don’t have the same song structure, the same sort of wit and relation to melody and harmony,” he said. “What I really appreciated with these songs is that they did. These are great old songs. I think they would have been hits in the ’20s. They’re funny, they’re smart, they’re singable. I really enjoy them.”
The Drowsy Chaperone runs from Thursday, April 4 to Saturday, April 20 at the Guild Hall on 14th Avenue. Curtain time is 8 p.m. More information is available at www.GuildHall.ca