Theater Review: “The Drowsy Chaperone” — A Refreshing Musical Tonic

By David Greenham

The Lyric Stage Company production almost meets the challenges posed by this delightfully inane musical farce.

Mark Linehan and Jared Troilo in the Lyric Stage Company’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone. Photo: Mark S. Howard

The Drowsy Chaperone Music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar. Directed and choreographed by Larry Sousa. Music direction by Matthew Stern. Scenic design by Cameron McEachern, lighting design by John Malinowski, costume design by Seth Bodie, and sound design by Alex Berg. Produced by Lyric Stage Company, 140 Clarendon Street, 2nd Floor, Boston, through May 12.

The Man in the Chair (Paul Melendy) worships silly Broadway musicals, despite his fear of actually seeing them performed. “I hate theater,” he confesses in the blackout at the start of The Drowsy Chaperone. In the darkness, he explains that, before the curtain rises, he habitually prays for the show to be good. He has had to endure disappointment so often. “I just want a story, and a few good songs that will take me away. I just want to be entertained. I mean, isn’t that the point?”

The Man is feeling “blue” and would like to share (with us) the original cast recording of his favorite Broadway musical, the silly, dated (and completely made up) ’20s smash hit The Drowsy Chaperone.

The musical takes place in the posh home of a wealthy widow, Mrs. Tottendale (Carolyn Saxon), who is waited on by her unflappable butler Underling (Todd Yard). She’s hosting the wedding of toothsome matinee idol Robert Martin (Jared Troilo), and attention grabbing “Oops Girl,” Janet Van de Graaff (Joy Clark), the star of the popular Ziegfeld-like hit, “Feldzeig’s Follies.” She’s leaving her life of showbiz fame to become Robert’s wife.

The guests at the wedding are made up of staple character types of the period: George (Mark Linehan), Robert’s nervous best man; the overbearing but insecure producer Mr. Feldzeig (Damon Singletary) and his date, the ditzy, wanna-be star Kitty (Kristian Espiritu); Adolpho (Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia), a cartoonish, self-proclaimed Latin Lover; a pair of fast-talking gangsters (Kathy St. George and Illyse Robbins) who are disguised a pastry chefs; Trix (Yasmeen Duncan), an aviatrix who lands just in the nick of time; and Janet’s protector, The Drowsy Chaperone (Maureen Keiller), who’s more interested in drinking than doing any safeguarding.

The minuscule plot conflict is that Feldzeig has hired the gangsters to disrupt the wedding. That way, Janet will return to his show.

But none of that setup matters all that much because the show is not being performed as it would have been in the ’20s. Instead, the amusing conceit of The Drowsy Chaperone is that the audience sees a shadowy approximation of the musical played out in the Man in the Chair’s cramped apartment as he provides ongoing chatter that includes some delightful asides. The production is all in his imagination — triggered by the sound of the album on his record player.

It should surprise no one that this little bonbon of a show started as a gag gift by a few writers and musicians in Toronto for their friends. The piece soon became a hit at the Toronto Fringe Festival: a few years and rewrites later it was produced in Los Angeles. In 2006, this prank of a show opened on Broadway. There it became — unpredictably — a hit, garnering 13 Tony nominations, including Best Musical. It won five  — for book and score, costume and set design, and one for acting (Beth Level as the Chaperone.)

Nobody, including the characters in The Drowsy Chaperone, are convinced this is a high flying evening of theater. Even The Man in the Chair is wise to the show’s shortcomings. “I know it’s not a perfect show,” he says. “The ‘spit take’ scene is lame, and the bunny motif is labored. But none of that matters. It does what a musical is supposed to do. It takes you to another world and it gives you a little tune to carry with you in your head, you know? A little something to help you escape the dreary horrors of the real world.”

And that confession — that this is a piffle of an “insubstantial pageant” — is this strange little musical’s secret sauce. The Man’s funny, at times even hilarious, commentary nails the tuneful triviality on display. The vaudevillian stock characters are as reassuring as comfy slippers. And the juxtaposition of staging an early 20th-century comic song and dance fest in a 21st-century apartment kitchen adds a marvelously surrealistic twist.

The cast of the Lyric Stage Company’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone. Photo: Mark S. Howard

The Lyric Stage Company production almost meets the challenges posed by this inane farce. Some cast members — Keiller as the Chaperone, Clark as Janet, Linehan as George, Espiritu as Kitty, Yard as Underling, and even ensemble member Katie Pickett in the cameo role of the building superintendent — relish (even revel in) the ridiculous humor. Unfortunately, other cast members miss the zany mark. What makes this musical work so well is that we are supposed to fall in love with its campy story and ridiculous lyrics — because they are being performed by actors who earnestly believe in the material. Too often the Lyric Stage performers settle for smug self-consciousness rather than robust heart.

Luckily, the charming and hilarious Melendy anchors the proceedings as the Man in the Chair. I daresay that he is better in the role than Bob Martin was in the original Broadway version. Melendy’s Man is nothing if not emotionally flexible: he is cynical and goofy, angry and outrageous, gentle and heartfelt. Melendy runs the gauntlet here, especially the character’s few sincerely sad and reflective moments.

Some of the problems with the production rest with director and choreographer Larry Sousa, who must have encouraged the wafer-thin caricatures. Matthew Stern’s music direction is on point — the band sounded terrific — but the sound balance was off at the press opening. Some of the songs were too “big” (decibel wise) for the Lyric’s intimate stage space. No doubt these issues will ease up over time.

Cameron McEachern’s scenic design, John Malinowski’s lighting, and Seth Brodie’s costumes are effective, fun, and entertainingly unpredictable.

Of course, The Man in the Chair is completely right: the “dreary horrors of the real world” intrude into our lives far too often. It is easy to become overwhelmed by compounding woes. The Drowsy Chaperone provides a refreshing tonic, if only for 100 minutes or so.

David Greenham is an arts and culture consultant, adjunct lecturer on Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the former executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He can be found at

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