I don't know what we collectively did to deserve The Drowsy Chaperone, but I'm grateful for it. This year has been nothing but death, destruction and the longest presidential campaign season in memory. We were due for some levity, some froth and some silliness, all wrapped up in a string of nonsense songs.
But don't let the pretty package fool you. The musical (by Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison, Bob Martin and Don McKellar) may appear to be nothing more than inconsequential escapism, but there's more to this show than you think. Stages St. Louis' current production, directed and choreographed by Michael Hamilton, argues that finding solace in our favorite diversions is a necessity in these troubled times. In other words, if you're going to survive what feels like seventeen years of campaign coverage, you need to disappear into your own little world every now and then. You could do much worse than submerging yourself in The Drowsy Chaperone.
For the Man in the Chair (David Schmittou, reprising his role from Stages' 2009 production), the only safe place comes with his beloved copy of the 1928 musical The Drowsy Chaperone. Holed up in his apartment, he enjoys a cup of tea while losing himself in the record — at least until the phone starts ringing, or someone starts pounding on his door.
Schmittou gets laughs with his frequent asides on the perils of going to see a show (intermission, everybody's non-stop love affair with their phones, etcetera), but he's at his best when he actually inserts himself into the action.
As the whirlwind romance of Broadway star Janet Van De Graaff (Laura E. Taylor) and solid American Robert Martin (Andrew Fitch) threatens to implode under the weight of numerous schemes plotted by various friends, Schmittou flits behind the lovers, sits in the middle of a dance number to admire it and steals a hug from the unflappable Robert. Both Taylor and Fitch do excellent work as the troubled couple, she in the spectacular "Show Off" (she sings! she dances! she does a quick costume change and then juggles plates!), while Fitch roller skates blindfolded during "Accident Waiting to Happen," coming precariously close to the edge of the stage and various bits of scenery.
The previously mentioned complications include Janet's boss, theater impresario Feldzieg (Steve Isom), who fears his show is doomed without his star. He conspires to break up the couple by co-opting a pair of goons (twin brothers Ryan Alexander Jacobs & Austin Glen Jacobs) sent by his mob investors. The Jacobs brothers are not tall, but their Brooklynese is strong and their highly choreographed threats to give Feldzieg the "Toledo Surprise" are delivered with comic menace thanks to their disguise as pastry chefs.
And then there is Aldolpho, the Latin lover nonpareil played by the incomparable Edward Juvier. The audience spontaneously applauded when he leapt onstage, which he acknowledged with a cocked eyebrow and a gallant toss of his cape. Juvier coos, trills, undulates and blusters his way through his scenes like a lascivious comet, his brightness matched by the incandescent Corinne Melançon, who plays the eponymous Drowsy Chaperone. Charged with keeping Robert and Janet from seeing each other until the wedding, she instead busies herself gobbling up all the woo Aldolpho pitches her way in his mating song, "I Am Aldolpho." Melançon writhes on the bed while he pumps himself up, then grows bored and begins a series of stretches that test the bounds of decency. (She later descends the stairs with a wantonness that defies description.)
Melançon also delivers the show's raison d'ecirc;tre, "As We Stumble Along." It's the sort of rousing spirit-lifter that requires marching in place with out-thrust arms before she can take it home, but inside the bleak imagery ("It's a dismal little world in which we live. It can bore you 'til you've nothing left to give") is the show's ultimate truth: "As long as we can hear that little blue bird, there'll be a song as we stumble along." Music, theater, the arts — they'll take you away from the pain for at least a little while. The title character's advice to "keep your eyeball on the highball in your hand" is also solid advice for these trying times.