Stage Left: Drowsy Chaperone among Phoenix’s best work

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With a murky political situation roiling south of the border and dire climate-change headlines, who wouldn’t want to follow the Man in the Chair’s lead?

The Man in the Chair is the reclusive Broadway musical zealot — wonderfully played by Douglas Peerless — in The Drowsy Chaperone. Psychologically paralyzed by a bad case of the “blues,” the cardigan-wearing curmudgeon hermetically seals himself within his dingy flat, listening to recordings of musicals. This not only cheers him, it brings a smile to those who have the pleasure of seeing a new production of The Drowsy Chaperone at the University of Victoria.

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Victoria theatregoers may remember a fine version of The Drowsy Chaperone at Langham Court Theatre in 2012. It was choreographed cleverly by Jacques Lemay, a former artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival who carries a national reputation. In the UVic production, Lemay takes full rein as director and choreographer — and the results are even more stunning. This is one of the best shows staged by the university’s theatre department in recent years and should not be missed.

A star of that Langham Court Theatre show was a teenaged Alison Roberts playing the bubbly ingénue Janet. Six years later, Roberts revives the role, once again dazzling with her penetrating singing voice and gift for movement and gesture.

Created by Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison, Bob Martin and Don McKellar, The Drowsy Chaperone is a somewhat rare example of a Canadian show that succeeded on Broadway, winning five Tony Awards. Although brimming with irony and metatheatrical winks to the audience, the 1998 musical is essentially a love letter to musical theatre.

The Drowsy Chaperone starts off by doing all the wrong things. It begins in complete darkness. The temporarily invisible Man in the Chair announces he “hates” theatre because it’s so disappointing. But in fact, it’s more of a love-hate affair. What he really likes are musicals that avoid audience participation, aren’t too long (this version of Drowsy Chaperone is about two hours with intermission) and offer a “few good songs that will take me away.”

The lights come up on the nebbish, theatre-obsessed Man in the Chair. Portrayed by Peerless as unrelentingly nervy, energetic and affable, he plays a record of a fictitious 1928 musical called The Drowsy Chaperone.

The show then springs to life in front of our eyes. As the Man’s flat vanishes, a simple yet elegant art deco set dramatically takes over the stage. He interrupts the proceedings regularly to narrate, offering criticisms and bon mots, elsewhere paying rapt attention like a delighted child at the circus. During Thursday’s opening-night show, the likeable Peerless delivered a confident, engaging performance notable for his skilled comic timing.

The plot, for what it’s worth, concerns a rising star, Janet, who’s to be married to blandly handsome Robert (a good performance from Ted Angelo Ngkaion). But can she give up the theatre for domestic life? Meanwhile there’s friction between Janet and a fading, boozy siren known as the drowsy chaperone (rendered as a dipsy eccentric by Rahat Saini).

Many clichés of 20th-century musical theatre are trotted out: the fiery Latin lover (the strong Nicholas Atkinson, who’s adept with the comic hip thrust), Guys and Dolls-style gangsters, a long-suffering butler (played by Ciaran Volke with admirably clipped precision), a ditzy girlfriend (Ashley Richter, who’s also solid in the role). We get goofy spit takes, improbable plot twists, determined cheerfulness. There’s even an over-the-top special effect to cap the proceedings, the introduction of a full-sized biplane — a spectacularly successful bit of stage business that’s a credit to set designer Bryan Kenney and his team.

Although The Drowsy Chaperone satirizes musical theatre, its heart-on-its-sleeve affection for the genre provides much of the charm. One potentially tricky aspect of the show is the back-and-forth shift in tone between bubbly musical and the Man in the Chair’s sardonic narration. If this is muddy, the show founders. Happily, Lemay’s direction makes it all crystal clear; the deft lighting especially helps.

There were obvious highlights, such as the show-offy song Show Off, in which Janet belts it out diva style while managing everything from playing martini glasses to coaxing a python from a basket. Accident Waiting to Happen, a duet for Janet and Robert, was particularly well danced and sung.

Yet everything about this elegant, detailed production works well: the excellent costumes, set, acting, dancing, choreography. There are 200-plus lighting cues, 60-plus sound cues, 20-plus set shifts. It’s terribly ambitious, especially so given the large cast of 19. And, remarkably, it all went smoothly

What strikes me most is how beautifully rehearsed this show is. The students worked on it six days a week since September. This effort is clearly reflected on stage. The result is a truly superior piece of theatre that will undoubtedly be a highlight of the season.

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