Theatre Review: The Drowsy Chaperone
Theatre Under the Stars is known for producing large-scale theatre shows that feature spectacle, great musicians, and lots of heart. The Drowsy Chaperone is no exception to this rule, but this time, there are some caveats.
The show is a 1998 parody of 1920’s musicals, set in the home of an unassuming, middle-aged theatre fan. As he listens through his recording of the fictional musical “The Drowsy Chaperone”, performers come out of the wings, the cupboards, pretty much anywhere with doors, and stage the show in his living room in a fun break from reality. This leads to some good play when, for example, the record scratches, and the actors are forced to replay the same section over and over again until our host and protagonist picks up the needle and sets the musical right again.
It’s hard to pick out favourites in an ensemble cast like this, but Sean Macdonald (whose character is named simply “man in chair”) has the perfect balance of understated choices that still translate for the big stage. Kai and Nicholas Bradbury as the Gangsters have some of the most entertaining physical comedy, and succeed in paying homage to character types from the 20’s. Mrs. Tottendale (Sheryl Wheaton) and her Underling (Peter Stainton) are clearly old hat at this broad style of comedy, and while not all of their humour landed, I was always happy to spend time with them. Aside from that, it’s clear the whole cast was having a blast, and their energy was infectious.
So, what are the caveats?
First, and perhaps most important, is the choice of show itself. It’s ironic that The Drowsy Chaperone delights in proving to us how far we’ve come as a culture by contrasting the casual racism of yesteryear with the progressive attitudes of the ambiguously gay protagonist, because a lot has changed since 1998. For example, it had to be called to my attention that the insinuation that the man in the chair was gay was being played for comedy, since here in 2017 we generally don’t laugh at men for being effeminate. At least, my generation has mostly let that go. And that is to do with the writing of the show more than the choices of the director.
The character of Aldolpho, played with impressive passion by Dimitros Stephanoy, is the broadest possible stereotype of a Spanish man. That didn’t really offend me, because a lot of stereotypes for Spanish men are thankfully positive: Sexual, poetic, wild. I’ll take that over the opening of Act 2, which features an overblown ‘Oriental’ number where Stephanoy struts around shirtless, squinting, switching his ‘r’s and ‘l’s to the delight of the elderly white ladies sitting in front of me, but not to the Asian couple a few rows ahead. This, again, is the writing and not Stephanoy’s fault, but then why choose this play in the first place? I can see the argument that it’s meant to lampoon what we used to think was okay, but the people laughing in the audience only heard a funny voice, and did not leave with a greater appreciation for what Asian culture is. In fact, there were no Asian cast members that I could see, no Spanish performers, and only two performers of colour in the whole ensemble. It’s not that every play needs a compliment of colours in its cast, but when you position yourself against the racism of the past, wouldn’t it make sense to have at least one realistic representation of the cultures you’re hanging out to dry? Curiously, when a joke was made only minutes after the Asian number at the expense of women, the audience was mostly silent. Asian jokes are okay, jokes about women are not. We’ve come so far.
On opening, some of the flashier stunts lacked polish, and the tap dancing was just off beat, but I’m sure this will be addressed during the run. The show is fun, and while none of the songs are particularly memorable, they are performed well, so you’re likely to have a good time, and feel your money was well spent, so long as you can get past the bits of genuinely offensive “subversive” humour. “The Drowsy Chaperone:” makes it clear that we need a new musical for the 20teens, to look back at that bygone era of the ‘90s and its culturally insensitive media. The Drowsy Chaperone runs until Aug.19, and tickets are available at https://www.tuts.ca/drowsy-chaperone