“The spit takes are lame and the monkey motif is laboured.” That’s not to be taken as a particularly aggressive start to this review, rather, it’s the judgment of a character in The Drowsy Chaperone—about the show itself. The self-deprecation is just one of the many charming aspects of this year’s Arts Undergraduate Theatre Society (AUTS) production—one that, in the words of Artistic Director Fiona Ross, allows the audience to “both revel in and critique the constructs that define musical theatre.” As noted already, it even comes with its own theatre critic. That leaves yours truly in an awkward position indeed. You, dear reader, don’t need me. You just need to see this show.
The Drowsy Chaperone may even be a bit too hard on itself. Both spit takes and monkey motif—running the gauntlet of humour extremes from slapstick to plain weird—were downright hilarious, much like the show is. The story of The Drowsy Chaperone takes place in the imagination of the Woman-in-Chair (Jami Price), the occasional interruption for commentary or by power outage notwithstanding. This setup not only excuses, but essentially demands an all-guns-blazing approach to the performances, and AUTS’ cast and crew delivers. The result is an uproarious spoof on musical theatre tropes, the logic of Broadway taken ad absurdium (though not ad nauseam).
The show-within-a-show centres on starlet Janet Van der Graaff (Colby Koecher) and her impending marriage to oil tycoon Robert Martin (Natalie Aspinall). The maelstrom of aggrandized personalities that make up the wedding guests include a malevolent producer (Kimberley Drapack), a dutiful butler (Cara Krisman), a ridiculous Don Juan (Chelsea Wellman), and of course, the titular chaperone herself (Vanessa Hutinec)—for whom ‘drowsy’ is really just a synonym for drunk.
Koecher’s Janet possesses all the instruments with which a starlet works her magic. Radiant and poised, Koecher also works hard to bring performance range to a book that emphasizes the stereotypicality of its characters.
Aspinall, in addition to being one of the show’s strongest vocalists, delightfully captures Robert’s physicality, whether teetering on roller skates or delightfully tapping away his cold feet.
While most of the cast display well-tuned senses of comedic timing, Hutinec as the Chaperone is nothing less than a master of the craft. With well-developed characterizations and outlandish-yet-controlled physicality, Hutinec singlehandedly elevates “As We Stumble Along”—a “rousing anthem” to that almighty patron deity of McGill: alcohol—to be the best number of this production.
No less hilarious is Chelsea Wellman’s Aldolpho, the ‘can’t-quite-place-his-accent’ womanizer who swoops in to sweep the Chaperone—and the audience—off their feet. Wellman’s earnest and charming delivery transforms what otherwise could be a morally-discomforting character into one of the most memorable aspects of the show.
The Wes Anderson-inspired set design by Fiona Ross—commendably working overtime—fits well with the demands of book and stage, while also holding a trick or two up its sleeves. Sound difficulties, including microphone cues and volume issues vis-à-vis the orchestra, persisted throughout the performance, but with further ironing out, this shouldn’t trouble future runs.
A stickier issue may lie in what is also one of the defining characteristics of the show: the frequent interventions from ‘the real world.’ Some of these moments work well, such as the spit take sequence. Most have had an unfortunately lethal effect to the show’s momentum, and the potential humour of these situations is not fully developed. Further adjustments to pacing and delivery may be warranted.
Despite these difficulties, The Drowsy Chaperone remains a show not to be missed. Never before have I been paralyzed by laughter induced by—of all things—a torrent of food puns. Nor has the soft “ting!” of a character, now dressed as a cymbal-banging monkey, been more unexpected and more hilarious. A vivid and feverish celebration of the best and worst excesses of musical theatre, The Drowsy Chaperone is simply pure, unadulterated fun.
The Drowsy Chaperone starts at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 at Moyse Hall. Student tickets are $15.