REVIEW: U-M’s ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ could be the local theater season’s sleeper hit

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Alexander Sherwin as Man in Chair in U-M’s winning production of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” (Peter Smith Photography)

If you, like “The Drowsy Chaperone”‘s narrator (billed as Man in Chair), are suffering from “non-specific sadness” – or even if you’re not, frankly – the U-M musical theater department’s production of “Chaperone” achieves precisely what he argues musicals are supposed to do: “It takes you to another world – for a little while, at least. It helps you escape from the dreary horrors of the real world.”

And during this particularly ugly election season – well, let’s just say “The Drowsy Chaperone” provides a charmingly joyous evening’s respite for us all.

A show that both affectionately mocks and celebrates musical theater, the Tony Award-winning “Chaperone” – with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar – evolved from its initial incarnation as a stag party musical comedy sketch, which a group of friends hatched to celebrate the nuptials of Canadian actors Martin and Janet Van de Graaff.

In the expanded stage version, Man in Chair (Alexander Sherwin) – a persnickety, neurotic musical fanatic – plays the vinyl cast recording of a fictional 1920s show called “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Soon, the man’s apartment is transformed as the show comes to life before our eyes, and the man provides hilarious commentary, as well as droll follow-up info on the actors.

“Chaperone,” a splashy 1920s musical full of “mixups, mayhem, and a gay wedding,” focuses on the impending marriage of oil tycoon Robert Martin (Kyle McClellan) and Janet Van de Graaff (Hannah Lynne Miller), a glamorous Broadway star who plans to leave show business upon getting married. This is bad news for her show’s producer, Feldzeig (Riley McFarland), who can’t afford to lose his star, but ditzy chorus girl Kitty (Jo Ellen Pellman) hopes to grab the spotlight for herself. The couple, trying to avoid bad and each other on their wedding day, is thwarted by Janet’s liquor-guzzling chaperone (Nkeki Obi-Melekwe) and a misunderstanding that throws their romance into crisis.

Scenic designer Caleb Levengood makes the narrator’s enormous-but-dingy apartment a Broadway afficianado’s haven, covering the tall walls with loads of framed playbills and headshots. Lighting designer Martijn Appelo significantly smooths the transitions between the show and Man in Chair’s commentary, while Camille Charara’s costume design visually broadcasts the characters’ personalities, as well as their era. Taylor Thiede’s wig & makeup design, meanwhile, is impeccable, as is Al Hurschman’s sound design.

But the behind-the-scenes triumvirate chiefly responsible for the production’s winning, cheerful spirit consists of choreographer Mara Newbery Greer (the male tap duet “Cold Feets,” masterfully executed by McClellen and Christopher Campbell, is a roof-popping show-stopper); music director Jason DeBord (the vocals are crisp and consistently well-balanced with the orchestra); and director Mark Madama, who keeps the show’s tone meringue-light while still affectingly, through the ensemble’s terrific performance, driving home its moments of bittersweet nostalgia.

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Nkeki Obi-Melekwe as the title character in U-M’s production of “The Drowsy Chaperone.” (Peter Smith Photography)

For one of the most endearing things about “Chaperone” is that it’s a genuine, honest-to-God ensemble piece. Everyone gets a terrific chance to shine. Somehow, this makes the whole cast seem more cohesive, like a team; and in a show framed by the comfort one lonely man takes in a show he never actually got to watch, this sense of connection endows “Chaperone” with its emotional nucleus.

In terms of the show’s comedy, Madama’s emphasis on vaudeville – its distinctive style, timing and sensibility – works to land each witty punchline, pun, and pratfall. (And seriously, in what other show would you see a performer singing while blindfolded and on roller skates?) As Latin lover Adolpho, Charlie Patterson gleefully, hilariously gobbles up scenery; Joseph Sammour and Simon Longnight play off each other beautifully as gangsters posing as pastry chefs, particularly during “Toledo Surprise”; Miller just kills Janet’s pull-out-all-the-stops number, “Show Off,” then turns up the schmaltz for “Bride’s Lament”; Obi-Melekwe has the powerhouse chops of a long-established star, as the character demands, but she’s also unapologetically droll as the chaperone who can’t be bothered to fulfill her duty; and Sherwin is the perfect nebbish, demonstrating how Man in Chair doesn’t fit easily into the outside world, but is nonetheless clever and lovable and vulnerable.

Fans of musical theater will enjoy recognizing subtle tips of the hat to other famous shows embedded throughout “Chaperone.” But even if you’re new to the genre, you’d be hard-pressed to not be charmed and utterly entertained by U-M’s production.

 

Remaining showtimes are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m., October 20-23, at Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. (There were several empty seats on opening night, which is a crying shame. Go this weekend if you can! It will do your soul good.) Tickets available at http://tickets.music.umich.edu/.

 

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