Imagine a pivotal character in a musical that appears only at the start and the finish of the show. This is exactly what happens with Trix the aviatrix in the five Tony Awards honoree “Drowsy Chaperone.”
In the musical-in-a musical at the heart of this 2006 show, a musical buff called “Man in Chair” quickly but crisply introduces the characters in the fictional 1920’s show of the same name -- including Trix -- as he listens to a recording of it.
In this rollicking SpeakEasy Stage Company edition, Trix is played by Nellana Mupier, a 29-year-old African American woman from Dorchester. During a recent interview, Nellana spoke enthusiastically about her brief but memorable role at the Boston Center for the Arts.
She said she wondered “whether or not people catch on to the fact that I will literally not be back until the end of the show.”
For the record, the musical does promise that the aviatrix will be back in time to fly the newlyweds to their honeymoon destination. Still, Nellana is “glad to be part of a show with a happy ending” and relishes the fact that Trix gets to “whisk them (four wedding couples) away to Rio.”
Arriving in a period plane replica that stretches to accommodate the entire wedding party, the talented actress-singer displays a big voice during the breezy finale. “It’s great being the center of the moment,” she admitted.
Nellana’s perfomance gave a little clue that she trained in a very different field, namely public health, earning a master’s degree in that field from Texas A&M.
Though she may be “in the process of looking for a vocal coach” and seeking advice from premier actor, singer and musical director Jose Delgado, her brief work at the start and more substantial rendition at the finish demonstrated an appealing stage presence and remarkable tone and resonance. Theatergoers who caught her stylish work in the musical “Buddy” last year at Turtle Lane will not be surprised by her snappy efforts here.
If Trix proves a disarming winner, so does the entire show. “Drowsy Chaperone” opens un- momentously with casually dressed “Man in Chair” reflecting on the pleasures of Broadway past. Inviting audience members to share his enjoyment, he plays a vinyl recording of his cherished musical (a fictional one created by writers Bob Martin and Don McKellar and score collaborators Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison).
As the score plays, the longtime fan recalls the entire show. With 1920’s ambience in his observations, “Man in Chair” is so enamored of the era and this musical that the show comes to life around him right in his living room.
The show itself features the romantic plot and quirky elements familiar to Broadway nostalgia buffs: dotty dowagers, uninsightful chorines and gangsters in disguise.
Musical star Janet Van De Graaff decides to give up the stage to marry oil tycoon Robert Martin - names taken from writer Martin and his own fellow comedian wife Janet Van De Graaff - much to the chagrin of harried impresario Victor Feldzeig (based on Flo Zeigfeld ).
Feldzeig must dissuade her from leaving his upcoming show in order to please his bankrolling underworld boss. The mobster has sent two of his henchmen – disguised as pastry chefs – to keep an eye on Feldzeig and De Graaff.
To satisfy the boss and gangsters, Feldzeig hires a bumbling Latin lover named Adolpho to romance Janet and keep her away from her fiancé. At the same time, Feldzeig’s unlikely chorine girlfriend Kitty hopes to land Janet’s part in the impresario’s new “Follies.”
Meanwhile, the title “Chaperone” is supposed to be keeping bride Janet away from the groom on their wedding day, but she is “drowsy” – read half-drunk – and therefore quite sleepy. As “Man in Chair” observes, all works out in such musicals, and the fictional “Drowsy Chaperone” is no exception.
In the outer frame story, “Man in Chair” purposely stops the recording and the show-within- the-show to comment about the actors playing these characters as well as musical theater itself.
Several of the performers turn out to be Jewish as in early American musical theater. Feldzeig and Kitty, he tells us, are played by Jack and Sadie Adler He also notes that Kitty Abram and Mendel Mezloskowitz have the roles of the gangsters. Theater buffs will call to mind the many real performers like Fanny Brice and the Yiddish Theater Adler family who dominated much early American musical fare.
The pleasures of the invented inner musical and the outer frame are vividly rendered by a strong cast, directed seamlessly by David Connolly.
Connolly doubles effectively as choreographer, with fast-paced jazzy combinations and elegant line kicks. Will McGarrahan captures the love of “Man in the Chair” for early musicals and the jazzy ’20s. He delivers Man’s observations about the characters and the performers playing them with sharp gesturing, crisp vocal inflection and rich facial expression. Karen McDonald brings a vivid Tallulah Bankhead edge to Drowsy Chaperone’s more acerbic moments and makes her signature song “As We Stumble Along” a showstopper.
Thomas Derrah as the laughable hired lover, in some of designer Seth Bodie’s more flamboyant costumes, Thomas Derrah has the impishness of a Harpo turned “Adolpho.” McCaela Donovan is appealingly immodest as musical star Janet and David Christensen smartly over-confident as Robert.
At the end of the entire work, the ensemble from the inner musical lift “Man in Chair” into the air in a kind of appreciation for his tribute to their show. Theatergoers should feel just as appreciative for SpeakEasy’s eye-catching “Drowsy Chaperone.”
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