I’m hesitant to characterise the performance of The Drowsy Chaperone I witnessed on Friday night as anything less than an experience — this is not just a musical which expects you to be a lazy audience member, who sits back and is absorbed purely by the degree of drama or flash of colours. Despite a deliciously raucous, immersive score and an array of finely sequinned costumes (at least three of which Kelsey Martin seems to consecutively slip through in one number), the musical comedy’s most rewarding aspect boldly emerges in being witty and self-referential.
The humour is never too pretentious for the audience, but rather beckons us to recognise the ridiculousness of the ubiquitous stupid girl trope, the archetypal English butler—and let ourselves indulge in them anyway. This is a production which not only serves to entertain, but teaches us how to entertain ourselves in our consumption of theatre.
This sophisticated rapport with the audience could hardly be accomplished without Nelson Lee’s delightfully sardonic narration in his role of Man in Chair. His character—who is never named, yet whose sharp tongue and endearing, jittery enthusiasm for musical theatre supplement all identification necessary—guides the audience through the show-within-a-show concept, speckling the production numbers with bites of trivia which more often than not give rise to well-placed black comedy. We’re also permitted periodic looks into his personal life (summed up well by a suspicious fear of dancers and painful failed marriage), which by the final scene results in much accrued sympathy at the character’s moment of vulnerability.
Beyond this side of the fourth wall that we and Nelson share are the ‘real’ characters of The Drowsy Chaperone. Kelsey Martin, whose stellar voice truly justifies the brief encore after ‘Show Off’, plays a captivating Janet van de Graaff, while the Chaperone’s drunken tendencies, as Amy Guthrie manages to stumble around in heels and still deliver powerful vocals, make lots of room for laughter. Will Crozier and Stefan Hood-Edwards, as Robert Martin and George respectively, embody their characters’ mildly disaster-prone personas with warmth; I’m left incredibly impressed by Stefan’s accent, Will’s rollerblading grace (even with the blindfold on), and both of their spontaneous, staccato tap-dancing skills in ‘Cold Feets’. (Quick shout-out to the blue-to-red lighting transition in that number—I just liked it a lot.)
Striking comic gold was the dynamic duo of the vacuous Mrs Tottendale (musical veteran Hayatt Al Joborry) and her long-suffering Underling (king of eye-rolls, Timothy Lim), whose series of repeated spit-takes left my eyes slightly damp with tears of laughter, and Tim’s suit very, very damp with spit/vodka/”ice water”, if you prefer. Aldolpho, brought to life by Avaneesh Belwalkar, is also an audience favourite with his excess pomposity and sporadic big-cat purring, which compensates for a snicker-worthy lack of good sense. Bailey Fleming’s timely appearance at the denouement as an energetic Trix marks her our resident deus ex machina.
Ravelled in anxiety for most of the action, Bennett Childs gives us all his exasperation as Mr Feldzieg, while Michelle Delves becomes a ditzy but lovable Kitty who attempts to crawl into the spotlight several times, and is often the cause of Feldzieg’s aforementioned chagrin. Meanwhile, Nancy Qiang and Caitlin Hayward star as his flour-dusted tormentors: a pair of pastry chefs concealing gangster identities, and apparently some hidden dance moves too. The baking puns (buns?) are endless.
Of course, the ensemble elevates the humour with big actions and even bigger expressions—is it okay for me to say that the near-weaponisation of paper lanterns in ‘Message From A Nightingale’ was a solid highlight?—and really puts the icing on the cake. Might I add that the sequences where the record got stuck or replayed, resulting in mechanical repetitions of onstage choreography, were absolute witchcraft.
My only true lament over the course of this production may be the compromises made in executing a comedy-musical hybrid; while the simplicity of some characters lends great latitude for jokes, there’s the slight impression that the dramatic and musical aptitude of our performers would have flourished in more complex roles. Still, with an electric torch -lit cameo by Mansfield house leader Mr Davidson (who poor Nelson stares at blankly, unreservedly bewildered), as well as a sweet moment where Man in Chair shares a piece of his chocolate with an audience member, the cast and crew achieve the exceptional feat of compacting what can only be described as an entire experience – of comedy, of theatre, of life’s little obstacles – into just over two hours.
With less acclaim than the Macleans musical production choices which preceded it (think Cats, Les Mis), The Drowsy Chaperone drew an audience who knew little about the pending performance but filled the darkened theatre with a blind buzz of anticipation regardless. We were granted many, many laughs, as well as a plucked heartstring or two, but most of all, a warm invitation into the world of theatre with jazz hands and open arms. The Drowsy Chaperone wasn’t just a piece of entertainment; it was a two-way conversation between you and a friend, who also happened to be a two hour musical production.
Written by Isabel Li
Featured Image by Isabel Li
Edited by Zi Lin Wang (and special guest editor Rohan Sadhu)