The Drowsy Chaperone, Live Arts, through January 16

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“You know what I do when I’m sitting in a darkened theater waiting for the curtain to rise? I pray,” says Man in Chair (Doug Schneider) at the beginning of The Drowsy Chaperone to the audience sitting in Live Arts’ downstage theater, waiting for the curtain to rise. The lights are down, and for a moment it’s tough to tell if it’s Man in Chair speaking, or Schneider ad-libbing to cover up some lighting booth mess-up. These questions (Did something just go wrong? Did he say that in character?) make the Tony-approved “musical within a comedy” a worthwhile ride.
Live Arts veteran Jane Scatena plays the Drowsy Chaperone—as well as the aging actress who plays that role—in a new production of the multilayered, Tony-winning “musical within a comedy.”

The lights rise on Schneider, who plays a clapping, hopping toddler of a Broadway fanatic wearing not one but two ugly sweaters. There is little we know about him outright, but that he is old and lonely, and loves a pair of playwrights called Gable and Stein. The duo produced his favorite musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, in 1928. And would you know it? Schneider owns the original cast recording with full dialogue. When he puts it on, a bizarro ensemble bursts out of his cabinets, his closets, his refrigerator, and soon his apartment transforms into a stage from the golden age of Broadway.

As director Ray Nedzel notes, 1928 was the year that Broadway had the most openings. (“Back in those days, the theater was the only place where stupid people could make a living,” Schneider quips.) The world of euphemisms makes for great comedy. Mrs. Tottendale (C-VILLE’s Linda Zuby) and Underling (Ken Waller) hatch a plan to refer to vodka as ice water—and spit in each other’s faces when they forget the rule. “Gay” means “happy” in the 1920s, and is mercifully underused. And the titular Drowsy Chaperone (the pitch-perfect Jane Scatena) isn’t sleepy but hammered, and incapable of completing the task with which she is charged: not allowing the groom-to-be (a nimble Ben Jamieson) to see his bride (Kimberly Hoffacker).

Oh, but Adolpho. There are a lot of ways an actor could have played the audacious loverboy of gnarly mustache and vaguely European descent: as a pest, à la Pepé Le Pew, or an overzealous but not altogether pathetic Lothario like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. I watched professionals play Adolpho on YouTube and they were all mildly unpleasant and made me chuckle. But Chris Patrick’s portrayal is downright disgusting—and hilarious.

It’s difficult amid all the false starts, repeated spit-takes (also quite brave and disgusting) and costume changes to sink your teeth into any emotional meat. Schneider’s character hints at a past—perhaps he didn’t like his dad but loved his mom, and broke up with his wife after realizing he was gay. It’s not a cutting-edge production but The Drowsy Chaperone is an entertaining one, and Live Arts tackles it with brio.

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