The greatest show unearthed

Mad Cow's Drowsy Chaperone takes you to a Jazz Age Narnia

The greatest show unearthed
Tom Hurst

The Drowsy Chaperone

through Nov. 20
Mad Cow Theatre

I’m not certain exactly when, but at some point during my middle-school years I discovered my parents’ cache of vintage Broadway cast albums. I dug out the record player, dusted off the vinyl and was enveloped in original productions that evaporated decades before my birth. I was instantly hooked, and when I finally got to high school and got my first CD player, West Side Story was the first disc I bought. But ironically it was years before I saw most of said shows in the flesh on even a community theater stage, much less the Great White Way; a quarter-century later, I still haven’t seen a Man of La Mancha that lived up to that Richard Kiley recording.

That’s a roundabout explanation for why I empathize so strongly with the narrator-slash-protagonist of The Drowsy Chaperone, which will be Mad Cow’s final production at their Magnolia Avenue home before moving to Church Street. The anonymous “Man in the Chair” (played to pitch-perfection by Steven Lane) is an antisocial shut-in who prefers pre-World War II performers to living people.

“I hate the theater,” he famously exclaims in the opening monologue, decrying the stage as “the only place stupid people [can] earn a living.” But actually, Lane’s character loves it as much as I, as evidenced when he invites us into his modest apartment to share his treasured artifact of the greatest show that never was.

The soundtrack from 1928’s The Drowsy Chaperone – the faux show-within-a-show – becomes the catalyst for a cavalcade of kooky characters who invade Lane’s lonesome home through his wardrobe, like an inverse Jazz Age Narnia. Into his apartment tumble Robert Martin (Chris Burns) and his bride-to-be Janet van de Graff (Andrea Stack), whose wedding is derailed by romantic misunderstandings involving an avaricious producer and his chorine companion (Billy Flanigan and Ashley Willsey), pastry-baking gangsters (Jamie Lowe, Ashland Thomas), a lecherous Euro-Lothario (David Bracamonte) and even an African-American aviatrix (Seandrea Earls). The complications are completely predictable, but the top-flight cast chews the scenery with aplomb – especially Michelle Knight as the titular eternally tipsy escort, who exists mostly to upstage the other actors.

Co-creator Bob Martin, who originated the leading role, also collaborated with co-writer Don McKellar on Slings and Arrows, the brilliant Canadian TV satire (which should be required viewing for anyone attending a Shakespeare festival). So the stage-skewering is as affectionately on-target as expected. But director Bob Brandenburg has shaped Lane’s performance into something even more moving than what Martin achieved. While the Man in the Chair was praised on Broadway for his wry warmth, Lane’s interpretation is almost Aspergerian in his prickly agitation, making for a more complex and compelling character. As he says, a good musical simply “takes you to another world and gives you a tune to carry in your head.” But when Lane attempts to follow the fantasy cast through his closet after the bows, only to discover that all-too-solid reality has returned, his dejected exit demonstrates how a great musical can give you something much deeper to take away.

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