That Obscure Object of Delight

Zach's dreamy 'Chaperone' speaks to the enthusiast in us all

Martin Burke (l) and Meredith McCall
Martin Burke (l) and Meredith McCall

People who finish your sentences for you. People who interrupt you when you're doing something important. People whose cell phones go off in the theatre. People who answer their cell phones when they go off in the theatre. Honestly, doesn't the rudeness of some people today make you want to just lock the door, close the blinds, and lose yourself in some bit of mindless entertainment?

Man in Chair feels your pain. This otherwise anonymous figure at the heart of The Drowsy Chaperone, currently at Zach Theatre, has secluded himself in his apartment precisely because of that boorish mob beyond his door, and as the play opens, he's preparing to escape from the uncivil modern world by listening to the cast album of an obscure 1920s musical – his personal tonic for feeling blue. But before he can set the turntable spinning, he becomes aware of us, the audience, in his sanctum sanctorum, a turn of events which, given his aversion to society, might seem unwelcome. But he invites us to stay, a decision that ultimately says less about his interest in our company than about the pull this particular musical has on him and his desire, even need, to share with someone this nearly forgotten trifle of Broadway Past from which he has derived – and continues to derive – so much pleasure. For Man in Chair not only plays the musical for us, he provides us with a running commentary on it, explaining in inordinate detail what makes it special, how it came to be, who's performing it, and what became of them. The result is a play as much about one man's fascination with a work of entertainment – and not an especially stellar one, it turns out – as about the work itself.

Of course, there is no such work as The Drowsy Chaperone. It's purely the invention of Bob Martin and Don McKellar, who wrote the book, and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, who created the music and lyrics. Taking their cue from the kind of frothy, frivolous shows that were all the rage in the Jazz Age – fluff like No, No, Nanette; Good News; and a slew of musicals by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and their peers (Oh, Kay!; Pardon My English; Fifty Million Frenchmen; et al.) that are never revived anymore because their books are so flimsy – this foursome has concocted the ne plus ultra of featherheaded, preposterous Roaring Twenties song-and-dance spectacles. Of course, its heroine is an impossibly glamorous stage star who's abandoning the Great White Way for wedded bliss (in this case, to a wealthy man-about-town whom she's known for about 10 minutes). And her cigar-chomping producer is out to sabotage the ceremony in hopes that it will lead his leading lady back to the spotlight, thus saving his new musical, as well as his own skin, what with the mob having dispatched to the wedding a pair of enforcers masquerading as pastry chefs. The hostess for the whole affair is a scatterbrained socialite whose every move must be managed by her droll butler, Underling, with improbable plot developments provided by an ambitious starlet with eyes on the producer, a flamboyant Don Juan with a pencil mustache and an outr-r-rageous Latin accent, an Amelia Earhart stand-in named Trix, and the titular chaperone, never without a cocktail in hand ("drowsy" being Prohibition patois for soused, sozzled, stewed). Toss in some mistaken identities, blindfolded roller-skating, and a production number with the entire ensemble in monkey masks, and you have a musical that's deliriously loopy, a cascade of absurdities.

Jill Blackwood
Jill Blackwood

The delight for us is that even though our host is only playing us the LP of The Drowsy Chaperone, we get to see it all. The show springs to life in his apartment as it does in the man's mind every time he sets the needle to vinyl. As Man in Chair admits he's never seen this favorite musical of his produced, it's as if we're seeing this show unfolding through his eyes. And at Zach, that show is conjured in all its daffy glory. Bounding into Man in Chair's living room – realized by designer Michael Raiford as a temple to the theatre, with framed posters of stage productions dotting walls that are the deep red of velvet curtains and marquee lights running across the ceiling – the characters look to be engaged in a contest to see how far over the top they can go. When the bakery-minded goons serve up enough pastry puns to fill a patisserie, Leslie R. Hethcox and Tyler Wallach rattle 'em off like they're firing Tommy guns. Amy Nichols' daft Mrs. Tottendale douses Ian Scott's implacable Underling with more spit takes than a season of The Danny Thomas Show. And when her altar-bound Broadway baby sings insistently that she "don't wanna show off no more," Jill Blackwood punctuates each verse with one show-stopping stunt after another, from a spinning costume change in a reversible dress – one of the many luscious and witty outfits from designer Susan Branch Towne – to twirling hoops on her arms to making a balloon animal to a split, selling each with the gleaming smile of a show-biz diehard.

Such silliness may make it sound as if the show requires nothing more than a cast willing to dish up an Easter-size serving of ham. But there's more to making this material fly than just being broad and loud. The kind of old-school theatricality being lampooned here was built on a foundation of craft, and it demands actors who not only get that in their show-folk bones but also possess enough of that craft themselves to replicate it. Guest director Nick Demos is favored with a crew of Zach stalwarts who know exactly what's being burlesqued and whose depth of talent and skill – not to mention killer sense of timing – allows them to reap from every gag a bumper crop of laughs. Whenever Jamie Goodwin's Latin Lothario does one of his outrageously outsized takes, it's with the same precision he employed to make master thespian Garry Essendine such a riotous showboat in Zach's revival of Present Laughter. Likewise, Meredith McCall's chaperone, who belts an anthem to tippling your way through life and brandishes her martini glass with the aggressive authority of Arthur wielding Excalibur, nails the diva turn as crisply and hilariously as she did in Ruthless! The Musical. (When she and Goodwin are paired here, as in the brief barbed send-up of The King and I, it's like an explosively comic cocktail of gin and tequila.) These and the other sublime comic performances, shaped by Demos' knowing hand and supplemented by the jazzy music direction of Allen Robertson, snappy choreography by Robin Lewis, and that to-die-for design work, land this production of The Drowsy Chaperone next to Ruthless! and Urinetown: The Musical atop the list of Zach musical productions that this Man in Chair would choose to revisit any time he was feeling blue.

As for the Man in Chair in Zach's staging, well, Martin Burke effortlessly sells us on his deathless affection for The Drowsy Chaperone of 1928. The character is a tad misanthropic – his devotion to stage musicals on albums but aversion to seeing them performed live echoes the contention of Linus in the old Peanuts strip that "I love mankind. It's people I can't stand!" – but when the musical strikes up, Burke lights up like a child with two fistfuls of cake and devours the performance with just as much joy. As he's done so effectively with the Little Elf in The Santaland Diaries, this gifted actor hones his character's sardonic edge to the point of hilarity and yet leaves room for his humanity, an opening through which he can be touched and we may glimpse his heart.

That the show that touches Man in Chair is ridiculous is part of the point – and not so we can feel superior to him for liking this hooey. We all have our guilty pleasures, those diversions which engage us despite their lack of artistic power or depth. Remember what Noël Coward taught us: "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is." Even throwaway works can enthrall us. The thing is, Man in Chair needn't be talking about show tunes at all. This show could just as easily be about The Golden Girls or the first Twilight movie or the last Harry Potter book, about the comic where Spider-Man and Daredevil fight the Circus of Crime or the Astros' loss to the Phillies in the fifth game of the 1980 National League Championship – anything that someone revisits repeatedly and comes to know intimately, as an enthusiast. Ultimately, The Drowsy Chaperone is about what entertains us, what connects with us in spite of – perhaps even because of – its obvious flaws. The heart wants what it wants. In the end, what matters is not whether it's a musical or a movie or a game; what matters is that whatever it is has the power, time and again, to spirit you away from your world of woes and leave you drowsy from its ineffable charms.

The Drowsy Chaperone runs through Aug. 29, Wednesday-Saturday, 8pm, and Sunday, 2:30pm, at the Zach Theatre Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside. For more information, call 476-0541 or visit www.zachtheatre.org.

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