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Review of The Drowsy Chaperone at Beef & Boards Theatre

The Man In The Chair. He seemed rather lonely to me.
Leave it to a musical parody to flip the switch for me to make me finally like musical theatre.

This past weekend's showing of The Drowsy Chaperone at Beef & Boards Theatre was enough to make me realize I now like the art form, and while I'm still selective, I won't pooh-pooh the genre anymore.

I had the chance to attend a Media Night performance of my new favorite musical this past Saturday, thanks to a complimentary ticket from Patricia Rettig, the Beef & Boards marketing and media relations director.

The show was actually written as a parody for Bob Martin and Janet van de Graaf's stag party, when the two got married in 1997. The fun show turned into a show at the Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival (Martin became a co-writer), ran in Toronto a few times, and then became a Broadway smash, winning five Tony awards, and being nominated for eight more.

The premise is a rather timid Broadway-loving Man In The Chair (David Schmittou) is looking for a way to chase away "the blues." So he pulls out one of his most favorite records, The Drowsy Chaperone.

As he plays the record, the characters come to life, perform on the stage, and he interrupts the performance to drop in the occasional footnote, bit of trivia, or opinion on a particular scene or actor.

The show-within-a-show musical itself, "The Drowsy Chaperone" parodies 1920s – 1940s musicals, where the antics are zany and situations are madcap. In it, Robert Martin (Timothy Ford) is going to marry theatre star Janet van de Graaf (Laura Douciere), much to the consternation of Mr. Feldzeig (B&B's own Douglas Stark) and a couple of pastry-loving gangsters (Craig Underwood and Samuel McKanney).

But when Robert "accidentally" kisses a French girl (it's actually Janet, because Robert is wearing roller skates and a blindfold. Don't ask.), the wedding is off. Meanwhile, Mr. Feldzeig is worried that the wedding will happen, so he manipulates Aldolfo ("I am. . . Aldolfo!"), the foreign lothario, into seducing Janet. Only he accidentally seduces the Chaperone.

And there's a whole thing with Mrs. Tottendale and her butler, Underling, including a spit take scene — she sprays him four or five times in a row — and even Mr. Feldzeig and Kitty. In the end, they're all going to be married, and flown off by Trix the Aviatrix ("what we would now call a 'lesbian,'" says the Man In The Chair) to Rio.

The Toledo gangsters. They've got a surprise for Mr. Feldzeig.

The jokes were terrible (a baker's dozen of pastry jokes from the gangsters), the songs were silly, and the situations were more far-fetched than a P.G. Wodehouse comedy.

As they should be.

I appreciated that the 1920s musical was actually pretty bad. It was hackneyed, predictable, and over the top. That's what made the show funny.

It also dug into some rather racial and sexist portrayals, which, if you know anything about entertainment from the first half of the 20th century, tended to be racist and sexist. Rather than shy away from it, The Drowsy Chaperone plowed ahead and recognized its theatrical roots, and the Man In The Chair was appropriately appalled.

I've often noticed that things-within-another-thing — shows, movies, books — tend to be. . . not very good. This was the case here. A few Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon books aside, the thing-within-a-thing will always be a lesser version, and we should appreciate the play for it.

Janet van de Graaf makes a big production about not wanting to show off in big productions anymore.

These things don't need to be better. We already know it's not real, and we know it's not going to be a masterpiece itself. We're not supposed to be moved by that story, we're supposed to be moved by the story that's reacting to it.

And I was moved by the Man In The Chair. This was more than just a show for him. He needed it. It had to be fun, it had to be wacky. Everything had to work out in the end, no matter how improbable.

Because he's got his own problems, including an acrimonious, messy divorce. This one show, no matter how hackneyed we thought it was, was the only thing he had to hold on to. It made things better for him.

Everything works out in musicals, even if they don't in real life. And he needed something to work out for him.

Notice the Man In The Chair on the left, and how happy he is. This is all happening in his imagination, but we all get to see it. And that's Deb Wims, most known for A Beef & Boards Christmas, up front in the blue.

David Schmittou brought the role of the lonely-but-hopeful Man In The Chair to life for me, and his educational comments about how a musical works were what eventually changed my mind.

For example, it turns out every scene of dialog is just a connection to the next number — I never liked musicals because they interrupted the dialog, but now I realize it's the other way around. It's not a play with songs in it, it's a series of songs with some dialog to break up the music. Once I realized that, it changed how I saw the art form.

(No, seriously!)

I was also pleased to see Kendra Lynn Lucas as Trix the Aviatrix. I saw her last at A Beef & Boards Christmas 2014, where her rendition of "O Holy Night" brought the audience to its feet before she was even finished.

In the end, Schmittou's performance sold the show for me. I felt bad for the guy. He just wants to be alone with his records, hiding from whatever pains him, and just trying to chase away the blues with something he loves. A couple scenes at the end, where we finally understand what's so important about this show, were very moving.

(Also, the theatre is very dusty, and that was dust in my eyes at the end, and also cat dander. And pollen. Lots of pollen. Shut up.)

He wants to experience The Moment, and can't stand it when something ruins it. He lives for The Moment — we all live for those perfect moments and moods — and when something ruins that moment — ringing telephones, power outages, interrupting supers  — it's gone forever.

And, because all musicals work out in the end, the Man In The Chair ends up having what may be the best moment of his life.

Or a hallucinatory stroke. I don't like to pigeonhole.

You can see The Drowsy Chaperone — my now-favorite Beef & Boards musical — until May 10. Tickets range from $40 - $65, and include a dinner buffet. For more information, visit the Beef & Boards website.

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  1. I saw David do this show at Stages St Louis, and this is one of my VERY favorite shows. I thought he was WONDERFUL as The Man in the Chair.


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