Drowsy Chap­er­one among Phoenix’s best work

Times Colonist - - Arts - ADRIAN CHAM­BER­LAIN Stage Left acham­ber­lain@times­colonist.com

With a murky po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion roil­ing south of the bor­der and dire cli­mate-change head­lines, who wouldn’t want to fol­low the Man in the Chair’s lead?

The Man in the Chair is the reclu­sive Broad­way mu­si­cal zealot — won­der­fully played by Dou­glas Peer­less — in The Drowsy Chap­er­one. Psy­cho­log­i­cally par­a­lyzed by a bad case of the “blues,” the cardi­gan-wear­ing cur­mud­geon her­met­i­cally seals him­self within his dingy flat, lis­ten­ing to record­ings of mu­si­cals. This not only cheers him, it brings a smile to those who have the plea­sure of see­ing a new pro­duc­tion of The Drowsy Chap­er­one at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria.

Vic­to­ria the­atre­go­ers may re­mem­ber a fine ver­sion of The Drowsy Chap­er­one at Lang­ham Court The­atre in 2012. It was chore­ographed clev­erly by Jac­ques Le­may, a for­mer artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Char­lot­te­town Fes­ti­val who car­ries a na­tional rep­u­ta­tion. In the UVic pro­duc­tion, Le­may takes full rein as di­rec­tor and chore­og­ra­pher — and the re­sults are even more stun­ning. This is one of the best shows staged by the univer­sity’s the­atre depart­ment in re­cent years and should not be missed.

A star of that Lang­ham Court The­atre show was a teenaged Ali­son Roberts play­ing the bub­bly in­génue Janet. Six years later, Roberts re­vives the role, once again daz­zling with her pen­e­trat­ing sing­ing voice and gift for move­ment and ges­ture.

Cre­ated by Lisa Lam­bert, Greg Mor­ri­son, Bob Mar­tin and Don McKel­lar, The Drowsy Chap­er­one is a some­what rare ex­am­ple of a Cana­dian show that suc­ceeded on Broad­way, win­ning five Tony Awards. Al­though brim­ming with irony and metathe­atri­cal winks to the au­di­ence, the 1998 mu­si­cal is es­sen­tially a love let­ter to mu­si­cal the­atre.

The Drowsy Chap­er­one starts off by do­ing all the wrong things. It be­gins in com­plete dark­ness. The tem­po­rar­ily in­vis­i­ble Man in the Chair an­nounces he “hates” the­atre be­cause it’s so dis­ap­point­ing. But in fact, it’s more of a love­hate af­fair. What he re­ally likes are mu­si­cals that avoid au­di­ence par­tic­i­pa­tion, aren’t too long (this ver­sion of Drowsy Chap­er­one is about two hours with in­ter­mis­sion) and of­fer a “few good songs that will take me away.”

The lights come up on the neb­bish, the­atre-ob­sessed Man in the Chair. Por­trayed by Peer­less as un­re­lent­ingly nervy, en­er­getic and af­fa­ble, he plays a record of a fic­ti­tious 1928 mu­si­cal called The Drowsy Chap­er­one.

The show then springs to life in front of our eyes. As the Man’s flat van­ishes, a sim­ple yet el­e­gant art deco set dra­mat­i­cally takes over the stage. He in­ter­rupts the pro­ceed­ings reg­u­larly to nar­rate, of­fer­ing crit­i­cisms and bon mots, else­where pay­ing rapt at­ten­tion like a de­lighted child at the cir­cus. Dur­ing Thurs­day’s open­ing-night show, the like­able Peer­less de­liv­ered a con­fi­dent, en­gag­ing per­for­mance notable for his skilled comic tim­ing.

The plot, for what it’s worth, con­cerns a ris­ing star, Janet, who’s to be mar­ried to blandly hand­some Robert (a good per­for­mance from Ted An­gelo Ngkaion). But can she give up the the­atre for do­mes­tic life? Mean­while there’s fric­tion be­tween Janet and a fad­ing, boozy siren known as the drowsy chap­er­one (ren­dered as a dipsy ec­cen­tric by Ra­hat Saini).

Many clichés of 20th-cen­tury mu­si­cal the­atre are trot­ted out: the fiery Latin lover (the strong Ni­cholas Atkin­son, who’s adept with the comic hip thrust), Guys and Dolls-style gang­sters, a long­suf­fer­ing but­ler (played by Ciaran Volke with ad­mirably clipped pre­ci­sion), a ditzy girl­friend (Ash­ley Richter, who’s also solid in the role). We get goofy spit takes, im­prob­a­ble plot twists, de­ter­mined cheer­ful­ness. There’s even an over-the-top spe­cial ef­fect to cap the pro­ceed­ings, the in­tro­duc­tion of a full-sized bi­plane — a spec­tac­u­larly suc­cess­ful bit of stage busi­ness that’s a credit to set de­signer Bryan Ken­ney and his team.

Al­though The Drowsy Chap­er­one sat­i­rizes mu­si­cal the­atre, its heart-on-its-sleeve af­fec­tion for the genre pro­vides much of the charm. One po­ten­tially tricky as­pect of the show is the backand-forth shift in tone be­tween bub­bly mu­si­cal and the Man in the Chair’s sar­donic nar­ra­tion. If this is muddy, the show founders. Hap­pily, Le­may’s di­rec­tion makes it all crys­tal clear; the deft light­ing es­pe­cially helps.

There were ob­vi­ous high­lights, such as the show-offy song Show Off, in which Janet belts it out diva style while man­ag­ing ev­ery­thing from play­ing mar­tini glasses to coax­ing a python from a bas­ket. Ac­ci­dent Wait­ing to Hap­pen, a duet for Janet and Robert, was par­tic­u­larly well danced and sung.

Yet ev­ery­thing about this el­e­gant, de­tailed pro­duc­tion works well: the ex­cel­lent cos­tumes, set, act­ing, danc­ing, chore­og­ra­phy. There are 200-plus light­ing cues, 60-plus sound cues, 20-plus set shifts. It’s ter­ri­bly am­bi­tious, es­pe­cially so given the large cast of 19. And, re­mark­ably, it all went smoothly

What strikes me most is how beau­ti­fully re­hearsed this show is. The stu­dents worked on it six days a week since Septem­ber. This ef­fort is clearly re­flected on stage. The re­sult is a truly su­pe­rior piece of the­atre that will un­doubt­edly be a high­light of the sea­son.

DEAN KALYAN

Janet (Ali­son Roberts) asks her chap­er­one (Ra­hat Saini) for ad­vice in love and mar­riage in The Drowsy Chap­er­one, run­ning at the Phoenix The­atre at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria un­til Nov. 24.

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