By Annette Hinkle
As Broadway musicals go, “The Drowsy Chaperone” is definitely a lesser known one. But the play’s high energy action makes it popular with audiences, as the Shelter Island Drama Club, under the direction of John Kaasik, proved last weekend when presenting the musical to packed houses in the school auditorium.
With book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar and music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, the musical premiered on Broadway in 2006. Though it may be a 21st century offering, “The Drowsy Chaperone” evokes the bygone era of the 1920s musical theater genre, using cornball humor, vaudevillian skits, loads of nostalgia, and a series of inexplicable plot twists to tell several tales of love.
Frankly, the story line is so ridiculous it can easily drive theater-goers to distraction. Fortunately, a terrific narrator is present to guide the audience through the musical. Simply named Woman in Chair (played to perfection by senior Kelly Colligan), the narrator is a nerdy, agoraphobic theater buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure Broadway shows who sequesters herself inside her apartment and gets swept away by old musical theater recordings played on a vintage turntable.
In this case, we’re hearing Gable and Stein’s 1928 “The Drowsy Chaperone,” (the duo are, of course fictional, as is the show) and the moment the narrator puts the needle on the album to start the score, the musical comes to life, literally, as a full complement of actors enters the stage to portray the action taking place in the narrator’s mind.
The story of “The Drowsy Chaperone” centers on a fabulously popular and egocentric stage star, Janet Van De Graaf (played with great humor and self-parody by senior Serina Kaasik), who is set to marry the dashing Robert Martin (portrayed by talented junior William Garrison). In spite of her great fame, Janet has vowed to give up performing once she is married.
But not everyone is happy about Janet and Robert’s pending nuptials, particularly Feldzieg (well played by sophomore Daniel Boeklen), a beleaguered stage producer who has more than a passing interest in keeping Janet in the limelight. It seems one of his major investor’s has hired two gangsters posing as tough talking bakers (served up hilariously by freshman Owen Gibbs and senior Maksym Moroz) to rough up Feldzieg and ensure Janet stays on stage at all costs.
Meanwhile, keeping an eye on Janet is the Drowsy Chaperone (portrayed marvelously by talented junior Zoey Bolton) — drowsy being a euphemism for drunk… this is a play set in the midst of prohibition after all. Ms. Bolton inhabits her character with authority and pulls off a role far beyond her years. The chaperone’s constant quest for a drink in the driest of decades provides plenty of comic relief, which is probably why she has little time or inclination to look after Janet.
It doesn’t help matters when Feldzieg enlists the ardor of a Latin lover named Aldolpho, played hilariously by senior exchange student Rodrigo Barros and convinces him to seduce Janet in hopes that Robert will call off the wedding. But this is a comedic farce, so when Aldolpho goes in search of the bride, he instead finds the Drowsy Chaperone and you can guess what happens next.
Then there’s the overly-serious best man George (well played by senior Jack Kimmelmann) who insists Robert not see Janet before the wedding. To help calm Robert’s pre-wedding jitters, George suggests that Robert go roller skating in the garden and blindfolds him so he won’t accidentally see Janet while doing it. Ridiculous, right?
Naturally, a blindfolded, skating Robert rolls right into Janet and in order to test his love for her, Janet pretends to be a French girl named Mimi. She asks Robert how he and his fiancé met. Robert tells the tale and ends up kissing Mimi in the excitement of the reenactment. Of course, Janet is furious Robert would kiss a strange French girl (even if Janet is the strange French girl), and she calls off the wedding.
You can see where this is going — or perhaps you can’t — and complicating the silly plot greatly are a subset of characters who all have different goals for their own dreams and desires. Among them is the lovably ditsy Kitty (played on alternating nights by juniors Olivia Yeaman and Sophia Strauss), a less than talented show girl who sees Janet’s impending marriage as an opportunity to move up to a leading role on Feldzieg’s stage.
Then there’s the delightfully dotty Mrs. Tottendale (played on alternating nights by juniors Julia Labrozzi and Elizabeth Larsen), a sweet old lady who unfortunately, can’t seem to remember a thing — including the fact that she is hosting the wedding at her home. Mrs. Tottendale’s most frequent interactions are with Underling, her sarcastic, long-suffering manservant, played with great deadpan humor by senior Henry Lang. At times, his snarky delivery and cutting quips elevate their employer/employee relationship to something resembling that of an old married couple.
And speaking of marriage, by the middle of Act II, things get even more complicated on the romance front as several additional couples find one another and pledge their undying love. By the final curtain, there may be more than one wedding taking place on this stage.
That’s where the inexplicable appearance of Trix, the aviatrix (played by adorably spunky senior Elizabeth Dunning), comes in. She’s an Amelia-Earhart inspired flying ace who shows up for absolutely no reason at all near the end of Act II, except for the fact that a minister is needed to marry everyone who plans to walk down the aisle that day.
Fortunately, Trix, is technically captain of a ship (air, not sea) and is deemed qualified to marry complete strangers. This she does in short order and after the ceremony, the whole cast decides to fly on down to Rio for the honeymoon aboard and atop Trix’s bi-plane in an appropriate grand finale referencing wing-walkers of the era.
Just as the play is cruising to its end, the power goes out in the narrator’s apartment, plunging the room into darkness. The music stops, the actors freeze and there’s a knock at the door. The narrator curses her luck and reluctantly lets the building’s super in to the apartment to fix the fuse box.
The super was this year’s cameo role, an annual tradition at Shelter Island School productions in which a different familiar face from the community portrays a character at each performance. On Thursday, the super’s role was filled by school nurse Mary Kanarvogel, followed on Friday and Saturday by school superintendent Leonard Skuggevik and town supervisor Jim Dougherty, respectively, and, appropriately enough, on Sunday by Pastor Stephen Fearing of the Presbyterian Church.
The whole show is great fun, and beyond the silliness and nostalgia, the beautiful thing about “The Drowsy Chaperone” is that, as a musical with a diverse cast, it truly provides each of the leads an opportunity to shine.
In the crowd pleasing dance number “Cold Feets,” Mr. Garrison and Mr. Kimmelmann (as Robert and George) display stellar tap skills, nailing vaudevillian moves, leaping off divans and even moonwalking. Ms. Kaasik’s key moment as Janet comes in “Show Off,” an amusing number in which she conveys her fervent desire to no longer be in the limelight while simultaneously mugging for photographers and pulling off astounding feats of daring and skill.
For the Drowsy Chaperone, Ms. Bolton’s moment comes with the completely irreverent “As We Stumble Along,” which the narrator bills as “a rousing anthem to alcoholism,” while Mr. Barros’s shining number, “I am Aldolpho,” is a tango-inspired tune in which he hysterically extolls his virtue and talents as a lover of many women (frankly, it’s hard not to envision him as a flesh and blood version of the amorous Puss in Boots in “Shrek”).
As the gangster baker boys, Mr. Gibbs and Mr. Moroz are put through their dancing paces in “Toledo Surprise,” while the big number for Mrs. Tottendale (Ms. Labrozzi and Ms. Larsen) and Mr. Lang as Underling is “Love is Always Lovely in the End.” Finally, Ms. Dunning leads the way with great enthusiasm in the rousing flight-inspired number “I Do, I Do In the Sky.”
Though our narrator, Ms. Colligan, doesn’t have a song and dance number, per se, her running commentary and intelligent, humorous quips offer context on the occasionally painfully dopey script. Not only does she bring insight into how the world has changed politically and socially in the last century, she also provides a liberal dose of trivia about the obscure
lives of the fictional actors who appeared in the 1928 production.
“I hate this scene,” she tells the audience without a trace of irony during one particularly ridiculous moment in which Mrs. Tottendale and Underling repeatedly do a vodka spit take. Mercifully, after several go-arounds, Ms. Colligan moves the needle ahead on the record and the actors speed up to rush through the annoying repetitive bit.
These sorts of clever devices were dispersed throughout the play and used to great effect. At one point, the entire cast was stuck repeating a dance move due to a scratch in the record (ironically, something most of these actors have probably never experienced first hand).
Then there’s the music. Performed with enthusiasm by a talented pit band, the score completed the vaudevillian picture and inspired the young actors and singers to perform with enthusiasm and authenticity. Of course, a 1920s musical needs a bevy of back-up singers and dancers. They were: Amelia Clark, Sydney Clark, Lily Garrison, Domingo Gil, Jason Green, Tyler Gullusico, Madison Hallman, Abigail Kotula, Nicholas Labrozzi, James Lupo, Jennifer Lupo, Nicholas Mamisashvili, Zebulan Mundy, Amelia Reiter, Mitchell Rice, Jane Richards, and Mathew Strauss.
In the end, while “The Drowsy Chaperone” may be a musical most people have never heard of, given the stellar performances of the students in this version, there’s a good chance the show is now one that many Shelter Islanders will never forget.
And kudos to….
The backstage crew had their work cut out for them. Performing those honors for “The Drowsy Chaperone” were:
Back row, from left: Chanin Inturam, Stephen Cummings, Emily Strauss, Jack Lang, James Theinert (assistant manager), Susan Binder (stage manager), Isabella Sherman, Justine Karen, Colibri Lopez, Wesley Congdon and Peder Larsen.
Middle row, from left: Caitlin Binder and Francesca Frasco
Front row, from left: David Neese, Taylor McNemar and Christopher Corbett
Also helping out back stage with hair and make-up were Amanda Ellioff and Susan Cronin, and several moms and one grandma acted as chaperones (the non-drowsy variety) behind the scenes including Vicky Kotula, Eleanor Labrozzi, Nicole Strauss, Keturah Clark, and Laurie Dobson. Mom Katherine Garrison organized the potluck cast party.
And playing the rousing 1920’s-themed score in the pit were….
Keith Brace (conductor), Jessica Bosak (piano/vocal director), Michael Kendrot (woodwinds), Phyllis Power (woodwinds), Doug Mandocha (trumpet), Colin Van Tuyl (trumpet), Joe Hinton (trombone), Dennis Raffelock (bass), Taro Okamoto (percussion) and Daniel Koontz (keyboard).
…and let’s not forget:
Director: John Kaasik
Producer: Anu Kaasik
Music Directors: Jessica Bosak and Keith Brace
Choreographers: John Kaasik and Laura Dickerson
Stage Manager: Susan Binder
Drama Coach: Susan Cincotta
Vocal Coach: Thomas Milton
Costumes: Meg Larsen and Anu Kaasik
Hair: Mary Boeklen
Microphones: Francesca Frasco
Makeup: Mary Larsen
Lighting: Cindy Belt, John Kaasik
Set design, construction and painting: John Kaasik, Paul Mobius and Peter Waldner
Box office: Lisa Goody and Tom Hundgen
Programs: Meghan Lang
Sound: Anu Kaasik
Special effects: John Kaasik
Prop biplane: Paul Mobius