Beware those hungry poodles
Could “The Drowsy Chaperone,” the musical-comedy romp being revived by Good Company Players, be the funniest Broadway musical ever?
There’s certainly a lot of competition in that category. “The Producers,” “The Book of Mormon,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and “Avenue Q” would all be on the list. But — to use an outrageously mixed metaphor — in terms of sheer number of laughs per square inch, “Chaperone” is a strong contender. In fact, it’s my underdog favorite. The musical is so stuffed with clever references, silly asides, brilliant non-sequiturs, droll social commentary and laugh-out-loud sight gags that you might miss some of the hilarity on first viewing.
That’s why, to mark the opening of the show at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, I’ve compiled my list of funniest bits to watch and listen for in the show. (I asked some of the current cast members to jog my memory.) Spoiler alert: Some first-time audience members might not want to have any laughs previewed for them, so if you fall into that category, it’d be better to wait until after the show to read this piece and see how many you caught.
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1. The human-eating poodles. First, some background for those who aren’t familiar with the plot: The musical is, in essence, a show within a show. Our narrator is a melancholy guy known only as Man in Chair (played by Steve Souza), who tells us that when he’s blue he listens to the cast album of one of his favorite musicals, the dippy and beloved classic (and entirely fictional) “The Drowsy Chaperone.” As he explains the madcap plot, his sad little apartment is transformed into the set for a big, flashy 1920s musical comedy, and he gives us not only the storyline of the show but little nuggets of information about the actors playing the eccentric roles onstage.
One of those is a screechingly stereotypical Latin lothario named Aldolpho (played in the GCP production by Erik Valencia), who sings a tune titled, appropriately enough, “I Am Aldolpho,” that explains his red-hot-lover appeal. By way of introduction, Man in Chair also tells us about the actors (also fictional) who played each of the Broadway roles. Here’s the Man’s line:
“Aldolpho is played by former silent film star and world-class alcoholic Roman Bartelli. He was the one who later drank himself to death in his Chateau in Nice, remember? It was five days before they found the body and by that time it had been partially consumed by his poodles? Remember? Well, he was only partially consumed. Try not to think of the poodles when you listen to this.”
I have listened to that line on the cast album probably more than a hundred times. And I laugh out loud at every occurrence. It is, to me, perhaps the funniest Broadway line ever. (OK, to each his own. But I do have a little poodle of my own, which probably explains things.)
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2. What’s his name again? In Aldolpho’s song, after boasting of his sexual prowess and telling us his name a dozen times, he sings: “Now let me spell it out for you, for all you lovely ladies who didn’t hear for some reason because maybe you are hard of hearing or something — I don’t know.”
This is a comic moment that pushes the outrageousness farther than you’d think possible and still be funny. But the exaggeration works.
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3. Key change. The main plot thread of the show has to do with the wedding of an oil tycoon named Robert Martin and a Broadway star Janet Van De Graaff, who plans to retire from her acting career after getting married. In her introductory number, Janet (played in the GCP production by Emily Pessano) sings a song titled “Show Off,” in which she explains that she’s tired of belting out big notes and making amazing moves on stage. Near the end of the show-stopping number, she sings, “I don’t want to change keys no more” — and promptly changes keys.
I think of this line almost every time there’s a big key change in any number in any Broadway show. And smile.
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4. Snappy comeback. Aldolpho is trying to woo the character known as the Drowsy Chaperone (played in the GCP production by Jessica Sarkisian), whose job is ostensibly to keep an eye on Janet before she get married. She wouldn’t mind hooking up with Aldolpho for his body, but there’s no intellectual connection. “Interesting argument,” she says at one point to Aldolpho, “but I’m afraid you are a moron.”
Pessano (who is reprising the role of Janet from the first GCP production) tells me, “I feel this way dealing with people all the time in real life.”
I hear you, Emily.
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5. Monkey business. In a cast recording filled with great songs, one of my favorites is a silly tune titled “Bride’s Lament” in which Janet sings of a broken heart. Man in Chair warns us beforehand that the lyrics are not very skillfully done, but he loves the tune. And, yes, he’s right: The lyrics are atrocious and pretty much completely random, with Janet spinning a bizarre extended metaphor about a performing monkey that she put on a pedestal, but now that pedestal is broken in two, just like her heart. (See what I mean about the lyrics?) At one point the chorus chimes in with a “Monkey, monkey!” refrain as Janet starts to lose it, and the Man exclaims: “I love this part! She’s having a complete mental breakdown!”
The comic genius of the song is Man in Chair’s warning that the lyrics are awful before the song begins. Usually it’d be better for a listener to discover such a fact by himself, but in this case, the set-up is what helps make the situation so funny.
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6. Life and musical theater. At the end of “Bride’s Lament,” Man in Chair muses: “Don’t you just love that number? It has everything: a little Busby Berkeley; a little Jane Goodall. And that’s another thing I love about musicals in general. When a character is in crisis they sing and dance. Which is so much more interesting than just whining about it.”
First thing: Love the Goodall reference. And second thing (and this is a bit of philosophical depth): Wouldn’t it be great if all our moments of crisis could be resolved with a big production number? If despair, heartbreak, disease, disappointment and tragedy could be whisked away by a cue from the conductor? Perhaps that’s the eternal optimist to be found in the soul of every musical theater fan.
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7. Continental diss. One of the best characters in the show is, no surprise, the Drowsy Chaperone herself. Man in Chair tells us that she was played in the original Broadway show by a scrappy gal named Beatrice Stockwell, who demanded a rousing anthem in every show she was in, whether it was appropriate or not. The tune she performs in “Chaperone” is “As We Stumble Along,” which pokes fun at how dismal the world is. Best line: “Seven overrated wonders, seven underwhelming seas. Six excruciating continents. Antarctica. Oh please!”
It’s one of Sarkisian’s favorite lines in the show as she playing the character. And mine, too. I swear I am not making this up: Sometimes I’ll be going along in everyday life, reading articles about this and that, or perhaps flipping past a documentary on Netflix, and that when the subject of Antarctica comes up, and when I read or hear the word, I’ll think, “Oh please!”
If only Broadway lyric writers knew how much mind control they have over select members of society.
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8. Mommy dearest. “As We Stumble Along” also allows Man in Chair to deliver one of his most cutting personal zingers. Speaking of Beatrice Stockwell, he says: “Don’t you just love her? Basically she sings a rousing anthem about alcoholism. That’s what I love about her. She just does her own thing, when she wants, regardless of the needs and concerns of others. My mother was like that.”
That’s comedy with a bite.
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9. Drink, anyone? And yet one more “Stumble Along” gem (it’s a great song, I’ll tell you that). The Chaperone sings:
Yet you musn’t let it lick you
this planet oh so bland.
Keep your eyeball on the highball
in your hand.
For Camille Gaston, who plays Trix the Aviatrix, “eyeball on the highball” makes her smile every time.
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10. It ain’t over till you sing about the lawyers. And, finally, for sheer comic bliss, it’s hard to top Man in Chair’s critique of a song performed by the daffy Mrs. Tottendale (performed in the GCP version by Laurie Pessano) and her stalwart servant and not so secret admirer, Underling (Charles Rabb). The song is “Love is Always Lovely in the End.” Sweet title, right?
Here’s what Man says after this love duet: “Yes, that was charming, but to be frank, on some level, that number pisses me off. Now, I’m going to say something here, and yes I have been drinking, but I am going to go out on a limb here and say that love is not always lovely in the end. Often, in the end, there are lawyers. And another thing — and another thing — surely someone was aware of the awkward sexual connotation of that title? Love is alway lovely in the end? I mean, is it just me? I guess what I’m saying is that number is naive. And irresponsibly so. Sorry. I just thought that needed to be said for the benefit of the young people. I won’t interrupt anymore.”
Sublime. And hilarious.
And now it seems a pretty good time to say: The end.
“The Drowsy Chaperone,” opens Thursday, Sept. 14, Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave. Runs through Nov. 12. Tickets: $32-$60.
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i LOVE The Drowsy Chaperone. I love that a bunch of Canadian theater-people basically put its seeds together as a wedding-tribute for friends who were getting married. I love that it was reshaped with The Man in the Chair at the Toronto Fringe Festival, a testament to what Fringe can do for artists. Then, over time, it turned into much, much more. I love that both playwrights (and the original Man in the Chair) were writers/actors on “Slings and Arrows” (they played Bob the accountant who learned how to act and auteur director Darren Nichols “Deal with THAT”) and that many “Slings and Arrows” alums had a hand in the development of the show. I love how it LOVES the theater and that love is seeped through every turn of phrase in the show. I just love it.