Review: The Drowsy Chaperone

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While Vancouver’s other major theatre company brings back a couple of its annual holiday favourites, just on the other side of the bridge, the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company is serving up its own holiday treat with The Drowsy Chaperone now on at the Vancouver Playhouse until December 27th.

A spoof on 1920s Broadway musicals, the show left most of us laughing in our seats and received a well-deserved standing ovations from Vancouver’s ovation-crazy audiences on opening night.

At first the idea of taking in a 1920s song and dance show might be somewhat off-putting, as there aren’t many around still that may remember what they were in the first place, it is actually the deft writing by Bob Martin and Don McKellar (who not surprisingly won Tony Awards for their writing here) with just enough 21st century references that makes this imminently accessible and, at times, quite relevant although darn, darn silly.

This is also definitely the “fun little show that could” starting out at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 1999 culminating with a Broadway stint in 2006 and currently as an internationally touring show.  It also garnered, deservedly in our opinion, 13 Tony Award nominations leading to five wins including the aforementioned writing Tony and another for best original score (other wins included best scene design, best featured actress in a musical and best costume design in a musical).

The Drowsy Chaperone is also a series of firsts for Vancouver and the Playhouse: it is the first city to present the show beyond the original troupe, the first show programmed by newly appointed Artistic Director, Max Reimer and the first play directed by Reimer for the Playhouse.  And not only are Vancouverites lucky to have the show here in the first place (we were never on the touring group itinerary), Reimer must also be counting himself lucky that his first show for the Playhouse is what we are sure will be a hit with theatre-goers this holiday season.

Jay Brazeau stars as
Jay Brazeau stars as “Man in Chair” in the the
Vancouver Playhouse production of The Drowsy Chaperone

When the first words out of a character’s mouth is “I hate theatre.  Well, it’s so disappointing, isn’t it?” you just know you’re in for more than you may have bargained for.  And it is both this clever writing and Jay Brazeau’s turn as the “Man in Chair” that lifts The Drowsy Chaperone to its real heights.

To say Brazeau’s portrayal of our narrator and commentator throughout the show is simply brilliant would be an understatement.  While the words provided to him by Martin and McKellar definitely help, Brazeau embraces his character’s longing for a simpler time and the ultimate escapism from his rather dreary life with such timing, comedic ability and even a little pathos, that we’re sure it will be remembered as a highlight from Brazeau’s already considerable theatre resume.

Unfortunately the actual musical (this is a comedy within a musical after all) is not always what it should be and were it not for the fact we know that Brazeau and his character will have something to say soon, it certainly would not have been as entertaining.  I suppose that is the conceit here (were it not for “Man in Chair” The Drowsy Chaperone would exist only on the vinyl records that he pulls from his collection) but when I started to envisage this as a one-man show with Brazeau’s character regaling us with his love for theatre one couldn’t help but be a tad disappointed that the “musical” didn’t have as much to say or was quite as good as “Man in Chair” alone.

But this is a trifle.  In the end there is not much to not like here.  Sure it is, for the large part, Brazeau’s show but there are some other really nice performances here by the supporting players as well.  Special mention for me goes out to Mrs. Tottendale (Nora McLellan) and Underling (David Marr) but the rest of the musical cast does a great job in bringing to life characters so broadly drawn, with such comedic eagerness, energy and excitement.

Our only real complaint though, and the only reason we cannot give this show its full marks, is with the musicians on stage who very often ended up drowning out the singers.  I really tried not to let it bother me too much since I was having such a good time, but it was the only blemish on what otherwise is a hilarious holiday offering that should be packing in the audiences for a quick 100 minutes to unwind from their busy day at work or holiday shopping or, dare we say it, as pure escapism from the current economic meltdown.  The depression may have been the golden era for movies but it is clear that this recession will be the golden age for the stage and of course, The Drowsy Chaperone.

And finally, as perhaps the ultimate compliment, we are already planning on taking in a second show ourselves, with friends in tow this time, before The Drowsy Chaperone is put to bed.

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