Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


They just don't make 'em like they used to. Contemporary musicals have evolved to find new ways around and through the discomfiting "they-just-break-into-song" effect; gone are the days of full-cast numbers in which half the characters have no justification to be in the scene — we crave smart, edgy, believable. Yet the strictures in place for modern musicals tend to keep them from achieving the kitchen-sink, freewheeling fun of their ancestors, when threats of violence could morph into a questionably appropriate song about cooking and nobody asked questions. Incredibly, the Performance Network Theatre has its cake and eats it, too, in The Drowsy Chaperone. Written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, the production is a showcase of follies-style vaudeville indulgence whose meta-commentary still lands it squarely in the present.

In the world of the play, The Drowsy Chaperone is a 1928 musical about a plot to foil the ingenue's impending marriage and retirement from the stage. As the charismatic bride, Janet, Andrea Mellos sparkles while demurely grandstanding that she's through being a showoff. Nervous but dedicated groom Robert (Brian Thibault) is just dim enough for the silly plot; at his right hand is gee-willikers best man and de facto wedding planner George (Matt Andersen), who's a whirling dervish on tap shoes. Plotting against the wedding are Janet's boss, cigar-chomping producer Feldzieg (Mark Hammell), and a couple of wise guys (Pete Podolski and Phill Harmer), even as Feldzieg's airhead assistant (Eva Rosenwald) maneuvers to take the spotlight. Mild conniving pits a Latin lover with all the subtlety of a silent film star (Scott Crownover) against Janet's protector, the boozy belter of the show's title (Naz Edwards); the interaction of the half-wit Don Juan with the half-gone happy drunk is certainly something to behold. Musical direction by R. MacKenzie Lewis and choreography by Phil Simmons are equally strong with solo numbers and wall-of-song feats by the dozen players, backed up by the big sounds of a four-piece combo. The self-consciously dated feel of the Jazz-age performances feels like the best kind of fun we're not allowed to have any more since the world got all serious.

However, sitting in the darkened theater, this is not the Chaperone we're watching — not exactly. The play-within-a-play is actually presented through the lens of the Man in Chair (Phil Powers), just a guy sitting at home, playing the soundtrack record expectantly for the audience, and adding trivia and narration. The concept opens up the play to a world of added comedy, like bypassing a dated, slow-paced vaudevillian interaction between Mrs. Tottendale (Linda Rabin Hammell) and her Underling (Charles Sutherland) by calling attention to how terribly it's written. The inexplicable presence of peripheral character Trix (a larger-than-life Lisa Lauren Smith) is made acceptable with an aside and a wave of the hand. He also gives details of the (invented) actors behind the roles, and their lives and careers before and after the 1928 Chaperone, sometimes even to their deaths. Many little jokes concerning real-life intrusions, records skipping and the like, are quite clever but do start to get in their own way; a snafu near the end that's described as spoiling the moment can't help but actually dent the show's incessant energy. Still, director Carla Milarch skillfully integrates Man in Chair's presence into the plot of the musical come alive around him, as effusive, nerdy Powers reveals only hints about what made him blue (and in the mood to revisit his record). As narrator, he's engaged and spectacular, as a stand-alone character arc, he can't pull full attention from the excitement behind him.

The play is set in Man in Chair's faded classic New York apartment, and viewers who think it stays that way throughout the show have never seen designer Monika Essen in action: backdrop-changing, secret-compartment–ing action. Justin Lang's lighting helps the transitions from present to past, and use of a spotlight lends a grandiose sensation to the intimate Performance Network space. Costumes by Suzanne Young are skillfully executed, with a nod to the greasepaint and leggy stage getup of the period. The overall effect definitely captures a sense of time gone by, which would bring on nostalgia were it not so lively and thoroughly entertaining.

To say that The Drowsy Chaperone is homage to the musicals of nearly a century ago doesn't quite capture the entirety of the production. At its core is a throwback to a different time, but one that couldn't function alone with a modern audience. This innovative concept, sharply directed and executed, lets the viewer look back both fondly and critically; the result is a time capsule of sorts made accessible, nearly two hours, uninterrupted, of laughter at a quick clip.


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