The Drowsy Chaperone (songs by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar) is quite a phenomenon, starting life as a party piece at a Canadian stag do and ultimately gracing Broadway and the West End stage. Theatre 2000’s director/choreographer, Angie Broomfield, has rather honed down this production at the Shelley Theatre, particularly with staging, but it says something for the writing that it still works very well.
The performance begins with a dingy little man, ‘Man in Chair’, in an equally dingy apartment, breaking down the Fourth Wall and chatting about how the musicals of the Jazz Era help him to relieve his ‘non-specific sadness’. A musical theatre queen, he puts on a vinyl recording of the fictitious 1928 musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, and hysterically narrates his post-modern footnotes throughout. The stage then becomes his imagination and the cast come to life to perform the show within a show. As the performance progresses, we learn more about him, and Mark Ponsford overwhelmingly portrays this rather lonely character to perfection. We find ourselves genuinely caring about him and are touched to see the fictitious cast reaching out to him in the finale.
The musical within the comedy can easily be seen as an opportunity for the cast to ham things up, and there is a danger in this. A parody should be just that and if the show becomes too self-indulgent and strays too far from the Cole Porter/Gershwin original concept, then the Man in Chair narration will no longer work at all. The opening night performance was exactly right, but the cast need to work hard to make sure it stays that way.
Tracey Taylor-Jenkins, as the Martini-swigging title character, is absolutely brilliant. Her fabulous voice stands out from all the cast as having proper training and projection, which alongside her superb comic timing makes for a tour de force. She is more than matched with Peter Whitaker’s hysterical performance as the Latin lothario, Adolpho.
Georgina Smith as the bride and Daniel Murrell as the groom are both excellent, as are the smaller roles from Adam Davis (a very light-footed George), Adam Myers as Feldzieg, Valerie Gillard as Mrs Tottendale, Malcolm Clarke as the lugubrious butler, Underling, Allan Wood as the Superintendent, and Patricia Browne as Trix (who wears a coat to die for). Further comedy is provided by Dougie Gubbins and Neil Tallant as the gangster double-act and the delightful Debra Slee as the silly but very funny Kitty.
The off-stage band are great and full marks should go to the costumes, too, although some of the hairstyles could have been more representative of the 1920s (clue: they used Brilliantine and Brylcreem).
This delightful gem of a show is short and sweet, and runs for an hour and a half without an interval. The lack of set is a pity, as is the lack of major props such as the crucial 2D plane in the finale which now makes the helicopter/Miss Saigon reference unfunny, and loses that final glorious comparison between 1920s theatre and today. However, the company clearly have a great time and their enthusiasm more than makes up for any shortcomings.
If you have not seen this show, then I can certainly recommend that you pop along to the Shelley and catch it while you can. There are plenty of theatrical jokes and if you go just for Tracey and Peter’s song ‘Adolpho, you won’t be disappointed! It is on from 6 to 8 April at 7.30.