Most new musicals are based on material from another medium, these days largely from the movies. But 2006’s five-time Tony Award winner, The Drowsy Chaperone, is a genuine original, a show about an apartment-bound guy fixated on musicals, who loves to play his cast recordings of vintage shows and imagine what they must have looked like onstage.
On this particular occasion, he puts on his vinyl disc of a fictional musical from 1928 called – what else? – The Drowsy Chaperone, and the entire production springs to life before him.
Bruce Linser, a busy area director, plays that central character – called simply Man in Chair – in the opening show of the season at The Wick Theatre in Boca Raton. He says it is a role that is easy for him to relate to. “Because I grew up on all those musicals and I listened to those records. And I was always swept up by that romance, the romance of musicals,” he says.
“And then you get out in the real world and you realize – as the Man says – ‘nothing ever works out in the real world.’ But in the musical theater, everything is wonderful and happy. Yes, there are problems, but they are larger-than-life problem and you get larger-than-life solutions. I very much relate to that fantasy.
Still, as he says of his character, “There’s a misfitness about him that I think most people – but especially theater people – can relate to,” notes Linser. “That not quite fitting, that questioning your place in the world.”
Few musicals of the 1920s were plot-driven, but The Drowsy Chaperone – the musical inside the show – is loaded with plot. At its center is Janet Van de Graff, a former Follies star who is planning to leave show biz to get married. Panicked about losing his cash cow, her producer is out to sabotage the wedding, which the drowsy chaperone is trying to salvage. Then there are lots of stock supporting characters, like gangsters, a Latin lothario, a ditsy dowager and an aviatrix.
The show is set in the days of Prohibition, but the chaperone is rarely without a drink in her hand. What makes her drowsy? “Champagne makes her drowsy. All beverages, actually,” explains Laura Hodos, who plays the role. But she quickly adds, “She is more than an alcoholic because in the end she comes through. Not only for Janet, but for The Man in Chair. She’s finally able to get past her subtle quips and her comic relief to show them something real.”
The show that Man in Chair plays is a fluffy homage to the early days of musicals, but his own story has some depth. “I’ve described him as a mama’s boy, as an agoraphobe,” says Linser. “He’s incredibly shy, introverted and yet he has this incredible imagination, this incredible inner life that he allows to come out through this record. I think that’s what the audience relates to, because we all have the person that we are and the person that we wish we could be.”
“I think we all have a bit of Man in Chair in us,” says Hodos. “And I think for theater people that’s even more true.”
“Everyone relates to the longing to fit in or whatever that yearning is,” says Linser. “This is an incredibly deep show. I think there’s a lot more going on here than people give it credit for.
“It’s my job to keep the narration going and keep the drive going, that everybody knows what’s coming next and why,” notes Linser. “I have the best job in the world. I get to sit and watch the most amazing talent on the stage just have a good time and watch the audience enjoy that. What could be better than that?”
“I feel it’s a gentle send-up to the style of musical theater, in general,” adds Dom Ruggiero, the director of the Wick production. “The show is infectious.”
“Yeah,” agrees Hodos, “you’re going to leave with a disease.”
THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, Nov. 12. $80-$85. 561-995-2333.