The Drowsy Chaperone

The Drowsy Chaperone
Book by Bob Martin & Don McKellar. Music and lyrics: Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. Melbourne Theatre Company. Playhouse, the Arts Centre, Melbourne. Director: Simon Phillips. Musical Director: Mathew Frank. Choreographer: Andrew Hallsworth. Set and Costume Designer: Dale Ferguson. Until February 27, 2010

I’ve rarely had so much pleasure from one night of musical theatre.

A whirlwind of whimsical fun, The Drowsy Chaperone is a perky little valentine to the frivolous Broadway musical comedy confections of the 1920s, when plots were thin and formulaic, gags were corny, dances were energetic and music was chirpy and cheerful.

A show queen breaks the darkness, and the fourth wall when the lights finally come up, to enter a dialogue with the audience sharing one of his favorite Broadway cast recordings (fictitious tuner The Drowsy Chaperone) - on vinyl, of course. Hey presto, the show springs to life in his dreary studio apartment, with characters popping through the window, out of the fridge, the foldaway bed and the wardrobe, though his theatre of the mind fantasy soon stretches to painted period sets as well.

Geoffrey Rush revels in the role of Man in the Chair, commentator, pausing the proceedings by simply lifting the turntable arm, to inject comments on the show, the actors, the embarrassing old gags, etc. He’s also a participant, slipping joyously inside the action wherever possible. There’s an infectious wide-eyed air of wonderment each time he finds himself inadvertently drawn into the musical performance, amidst yet unseen by the characters, or joining a dance routine, hoofing with awkward enthusiasm.

For anyone raised on a diet of mega-musicals, The Drowsy Chaperone is a joyous show-within-a-show tutorial in the simpler delights of 1920s musical comedy.

It works superbly as the remaining members of this terrific Australian cast perform even their silliest moments with belief, locked in the world of the 20s musical, and never acknowledging Geoffrey Rush’s close quarter antics. The tongue in cheek fun is delivered with panache and gusto throughout.

The Boy (oil fortune heir) meets (show) girl, boy loses girl, plot (replete, rapif fire, with every possible genre stereotype, caricature, cliché, twist and complication), ends with multiple marriages in a finale also capturing the 1920s musical comedy’s penchant for the romance of early aviation and pioneer aviators.

As the Follies star giving up the stage for marriage, Christie Whelan is a delight throughout, but simply dazzles in her star turn ‘Show Off.’ Alex Rathbeger is the suave, sometimes hapless, leading man to the tee.

There’s an appropriately comic best friend (Rohan Browne), a deliciously B movie style Latin lover (Adam Murphy), stage-struck comical song-and dance gangsters (Grant Piro and Karlis Zaid), a faded Follies belter and lush (Rhonda Burchmore in the title role), scheming Follies producer (Shane Jacobsen), wannabee Follies star (Heidi Arena), a knowing butler (Richard Piper), and Robyn Nevin, hoofing and strumming a ukelele, as a bemused society matron.

The turntable chips into the fun in its own right too - a wrong recording in the album sleeve, courtesy of the cleaner, introduces a delicious glimpse of another show, an otherwise incongruous yet possibly interchangeable production number, while the stylus, stuck in a groove during a big dance number contributes a nice vinyl only gag.

I confess to owning around 1,000 musical cast recordings, so The Drowsy Chaperone was destined to strike a chord with me. It’s destined to tickle the fancy of musical theatre fans, and many more, I suspect.

Neil Litchfield

Photo: Jeff Busby

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