Theatre Review: ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ at Catholic University of America

The cast of 'The Drowsy Chaperone.' Photo courtesy of Catholic University.

The cast of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone.’ Photo courtesy of CUA.

Surely few shows have ever grabbed its audience so immediately and fully into its grasp. The opening of The Drowsy Chaperone, performed at Catholic University of America’s Rome School of Music, takes place in abrupt darkness, while an anxious but personable voice drifts from stage left to greet us.

As we learn, he is an extremely opinionated homebody. “I hate theater,” the male voice says. “Well, it’s so disappointing, isn’t it?” This voice, which belongs to a character called Man in Chair (done with a learned sadness by Matt Miller), offers up the prayer he says he always mutters before a show, hoping that it be terse, free of actors who roam the audience and blessed with “a story and a few good songs that will take me away.”

An impressive showing by the talented CUA Rome School of Music.

Lights up and he sits comfortably in an easy chair. Surrounded by his beloved music amid boxes of memorabilia, we enter into his story of imagination and escape. He shares with us his go-to LP (today it would be a soundtrack) of “The Drowsy Chaperone:” a fictional musical of the 1920s, The characters are brought to life in his imagination as he narrates the LP which he sets on his Victrola (that would be a record player for you twentysomethings…)

What ensues is an engaging explosion of musical theatre as energetic, intense, and crisp as I could ever ask for.

Man in Chair (Matt Miller). Photo courtesy of CUA.

Man in Chair (Matt Miller). Photo courtesy of CUA.

Suddenly, The Drowsy Chaperone explodes in front of us, a wonderfully silly parody of 1920s musicals. Yes, there is a plot. True to the great Buzby Berkeley musicals of the era, this is a 1920s feel good about an impending marriage, switched identities, gangsters, showbiz, and true love. Did we miss anything? It appeared on Broadway in 2007 and won a Tony for best Book and Best Score. Think of Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo” but the characters stay onstage.

It is a wedding day for young wide-eyed Robert (Jimmy Mavrikes) who has wonderful energy and innocence. He and his best man George (Lance Hayes) perform a surprisingly snappy tap routine, “Cold Feets.” USA, LLC

Robert’s beloved, Janet (an appealing Sarah Biddle), is the star of the follies that is giving it all up for love. Her boss, a boorish huckster (JP Sisneros), wants her back in the follies, as do the mob and the Gangsters, Luke Garrison and Alex Alferov, who play hilarious comic roles as undercover bakers. Their totally silly number, “Toledo Surprise,” was a simple scene that built unexpectedly into a full production number–priceless! In the midst of this is the Latin Lover Adolpho (Matt Hirsh), who in a wonderful sendup of Valentino sweeping women off their feet with “I Am Adolpho.” His pompous grace and charm commanded the stage with good vocal strength.

Each scene or musical number is interspersed with insights, preferences, or snarky barbs by our narrator Mr. Miller. And ok, I know I’m being played a bit. But I bought in. Watching him sing along and mouth the words as they are being sung onstage made a sort of 3 ½ wall. We are experiencing it as he is, that all effeminate, over-smart, homebody part of him.

The cast of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone.’ Photo courtesy of CUA.

The cast of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone.’ Photo courtesy of CUA.

But this is the key part. The collegians playing in The Drowsy Chaperone imagination musical seem to be shot out of an energy cannon. They are all triple threats. The acting is crisp, if not especially insightful. The singing is enjoyable. But the dancing is a revelation. It is so sharp that is evokes pictures being taken in frames onstage. Choreographer Kimberley Schafer has in effect made this a musical in motion. Virtually every scene has been turned into a dance number, with stylization and synchronization from the full cast.

Faculty member Jay D. Brock directs The Drowsy Chaperone with emphasis on movement and tightness. Part of the effectiveness is that everything comes at the audience so quickly, as quickly as our thoughts cross our mind. Costumes are period-fun and launch a feeling for the 1920s.

JD Madsen offers up a stage design that fits the constraints of the theatre and goes vertical, setting show lights on 2 levels, making it functional and campy. Off of his work with Italian American Reconciliation at 1st Stage Theatre, his work is consistently effective.

As the show unfolds, more of Man in Chair’s persona is revealed through his comments about the show, until, as the record ends, he is again alone in his apartment, but with his cherished LPs which he can summon up when blue. The Cast then serenades him with ‘”As We Stumble Along.” Lest we fret, all turns out well in the end—it’s a musical, of course.

An impressive showing by the talented CUA Rome School of Music.

Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

The Drowsy Chaperone is presented at the Catholic University’s Ward Recital Hall, 620 Michigan Ave. N.E., Washington, DC 20064 from Feb. 21 to March 2, 2013. For tickets to this or other performances in the 2013 season, call the information line at 202-319-54143 or click here.

About Brian Bochicchio

Brian Bochicchio is a transplanted New Yorker who has made his second home in Virginia. He holds degrees in English and Communications and enjoys his first love of theatre by engaging in the abundance of talent in this area. He been involved in regional and community theater for the past 30 years--on stage, behind the scenes and doing voice overs.