Phoenix Theatre goes big with The Drowsy Chaperone

ON STAGE

What: The Drowsy Chaperone
When: Nov. 8 through Nov. 24
Where: Phoenix Theatre, 3800 Finnerty Rd., University of Victoria
Tickets: $30 ($25 for seniors, $16 for students) through the Phoenix Theatre box office (250-721-8000) or online at phoenixtheatres.ca

Press about any production of The Drowsy Chaperone normally points to the finer points of this Canadian classic, from its top-flight writing to its five Tony Award wins. But with the Phoenix Theatre’s upcoming production of the Broadway musical — with a book by co-writers Bob Martin and Don McKellar and music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison — the real story is what’s happening both on and off stage.

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The Drowsy Chaperone represents the biggest Phoenix Theatre production since the University of Victoria theatre company staged Guys and Dolls in 2004. More than 100 participants are reportedly taking part, including a cast of 19. Director and choreographer Jacques Lemay said he remembers an early production meeting where he expected to greet a dozen attendees and had 40 people in attendance.

“I know this is a big Broadway show, but I didn’t expect this would be a big Broadway crew,” Lemay said with a laugh. “This is not Jacques Brel, where you’ve got one set and four singers in front of a microphone. There are a lot of moving parts.”

The Drowsy Chaperone is a frothy musical with a never-ending string of production numbers. The story takes place in an imaginary world envisioned by the lead character, known as Man in Chair. The elaborate set was complex, as it needed to accommodate the fanciful world of the Man’s favourite musical from 1928 — The Drowsy Chaperone — along with a real-life Broadway stage.

“You can do an Oklahoma as realistically as possible, with a full set, or you can do it very stylistically with a wagon wheel and a bale of hay. That is the freedom that we had here.”

That said, Lemay was careful not to veer too far from what was on the printed page for what is one of the most beloved main characters in Canadian theatre. “If you do West Side Story, for instance, you are going to have [rival gangs] the Jets and the Sharks snapping their fingers; that is iconic. If you are going to do Evita, you are going to have Eva Perón on a balcony waving her hand. That is the character — you can’t stray away from that.”

Lemay brings a vast array of artistic-director experience to the project, from being part of the team at six Royal visits held throughout Canada to staging several Olympic and Commonwealth Games opening and closing ceremonies.

Though he saw the original Broadway production of The Drowsy Chaperone in 2007, it didn’t offer much in the way of advance planning, Lemay admitted.

With a play of this size, rehearsing the production was the most important part of the planning process. “My duty is to make sure that everybody is on the same page. The students are in different stages [in their training], so the level of experience changes. It’s my job to get them to the same level.”

Much of the students’ research and rehearsals involved familiarizing themselves with the mannerisms of the early 20th century. Lemay, an adjunct professor in UVic’s Department of Theatre, who is participating in his ninth production at the Phoenix, reckons that hurdle represented the biggest learning curve for his young students, many of whom were unfamiliar with the style of song and dance.

“It’s a matter of trying to find something that is good for the students, something they can sink their teeth into. The nature of this piece — it’s a fast piece, with heightened comedy — the music is very heightened because the acting in musicals in the ’20s was not as refined, shall we say. It’s a good exercise for an acting student to work on.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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