The role of the Man in the Chair is the spine for The Drowsy Chaperone, and it's the primary reason that this lighthearted, inconsequential and very silly show is so much fun to watch: Without him, it would just float off into the ether. But with him, we're invited in on the joke, and his trenchant observations provide a sometimes tartly refreshing frame.
The Man is middle-aged, gay and slightly melancholy, cozily ensconced in a chair, sipping tea and wearing a big sloppy gray cardigan. He adores 1920s musicals, and when he opens his cabinet, we see he owns dozens of them — still on vinyl disks. To cheer himself up — and to explain his passion to us, the audience — he decides to play the soundtrack of a purely fictive show called The Drowsy Chaperone. And that's when everything changes: Platforms swivel, walls move, doors open onto unexpected places, and a swarm of hyper-energetic actors invade his nondescript apartment.
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A sendup of the shows the Man loves, Chaperone includes big sparkling numbers; lots of tapping and singing; moronic plot twists that serve as nothing but a pretext for more tapping and singing; vaudeville routines; puns and malapropisms; a pretty ingenue; a handsome leading man with very white teeth; a vampy, drunken chaperone; a clownish, self-infatuated Italian with a skunky white streak in his hair; and a couple of Mafia guys who are more ridiculous than menacing — in fact, they're a little reminiscent of the pair who sing "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" in Cole Porter's 1948 masterpiece, Kiss Me Kate, except that they're disguised as pastry chefs. There are also a couple of digs at the provincialism and unconscious racism of early musicals. At one point, the Man gets the wrong record on the turntable, and we find ourselves in the middle of a number from a show called A Message From a Nightingale, in which a Chinese emperor is urged by a bird to marry his English elocutionist — a thinly veiled reference to The King and I, and the neo-colonial assumption that only the English, and particularly those nursery governesses, can civilize barbaric foreign countries. "A slap in the face to 4,000 years of Chinese history," the Man observes, as he hastily changes the record, noting that the actor playing the emperor — who's also the fatuously grandiloquent Adolpho of Chaperone — was in his time "a man of a thousand accents. All of them insulting."
Boulder's Dinner Theatre has mounted a wonderful production. Brian Norber, whose work gets more interesting every year, gives the Man a weary intelligence, pitching the role precisely between cynicism and wonder. The Man's enthusiasm for the genre is infectious: Yes, it's dumb, Norber seems to be saying, but, damn — ain't it great? Isn't the musical just about the best thing that the USA ever gave the world?
The Drowsy Chaperone
Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through May 13, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.bouldersdinnertheatre.com.
Reading the program, I was startled to see Tracy Warren — usually among the BDT principals — listed in the ensemble (where, of course, she was charming); it implied an amazing depth of talent within the cast. And that depth is definitely there. Katie Ulrich is all verve and warmth as leading lady Janet Van De Graaff, who has to choose between acting and love and explains her choice in "I Don't Wanna Show Off No More" — easily the best song in a somewhat ho-hum score. Van De Graaff demonstrates her lack of interest in stardom by strutting, sashaying, blowing kisses, turning a somersault and throwing a few perfect cartwheels — some of them one-handed. Then you have Seth Caikowski's insane physical antics as Adolpho, matched by the soigné wooziness of Alicia Dunfee's Chaperone. As would-be groom Robert, Brian Jackson is loose, daffy and delightful. Artistic director Michael Duran himself plays one of the gangsters, alongside Wayne Kennedy; they complement each other to goofy, highly synchronized perfection, and are clearly having the time of their lives. All these performances are supported by Neal Dunfee's terrific orchestra, Amy Campion's ingenious sets, and costumes by Linda Morken that represent a jovial comedy in and of themselves.
This show lets you criticize the cake...and eat it, too. While the Man in the Chair expresses your cynicism about frothy musicals — and also a whisper of your dreamy and carefully hidden romanticism — you can just sit back and enjoy an exuberant evening.