Make ‘dem cold hearts hot
Words by Riley Treisman
“I hate theatre.”
The opening line of MUSE’s production of Bob Martin and Don McKellar’s The Drowsy Chaperone is greeted with nervous laughter of the audience, their privileged role as an unseen voyeur evaporating with three words.
The lights flare up to reveal the fanboy, Man in Chair, played by the charming Tom Crotty, a jaded theatregoer who offers the audience the opportunity to escape their woes and delve into a bygone era of tapdancing, muted trumpets, burlesque-style surprise costume changes and jazz hands – all wrapped neatly in his favourite vinyl record, the cast recording of musical The Drowsy Chaperone. His delivery fluctuates between infectious zeal and sentimental reminiscence, constantly lifting the needle to warn of corny lyrics, point out favourite moments or offer anecdotes of his icons’ careers.
The show was executed in just eight weeks of rehearsal, a testament to the astonishing commitment of the cast and crew. Maree Cole plays the enchanting leading Lady Janet Van De Graaff, bride to Jerome Studdy’s love-struck Robert Martin, whose risking of likely roller-skates-related bodily harm for the sake of quality theatrical performance is truly commendable. The two protagonists share the stage with the champagne-drinking Chaperone, egomaniacal ladies’ man Aldolpho, absent-minded Mrs Tottendale and her deadpan Underling, a pair of moustachioed “pastry chefs” and other motley characters, these unique personalities seamlessly integrated into whole-cast numbers.
In a musical at the whim of a “record” prone to skipping, communication between cast and band is crucial, but band director Lauren McNamara ensures the harmony of voices and instruments. Choreographer Gabrielle Rawlings’ dance moves are incredibly tight, from grand sweeping movements to the smallest head turns, the delightful tapdancing sequence in Cold Feets deserving special praise. Costume design by Emily Fairbairn evokes an era of glitz, glamour and gaiety. The set is a series of white panels with central doors for dramatic entrances and exits, a simple backdrop emphasising the immense energy of the cast.
As anyone in theatre knows, you can hardly expect everything to go according to plan on opening night. Vocal entries were sometimes hesitant, and microphone issues affected the audibility of certain scenes. However, these minor issues wither in comparison to the innumerable achievements of the performers.
Though originally a light-hearted satire on 1920s musical theatre, the show is given greater depth through Hartley’s directorial vision to set the show within a hospital in a raw depiction of mental illness. The Man in Chair, whilst speaking to us about “feeling blue,” is attended by a nurse in a baby-blue uniform and made to swallow pills, and later, a seemingly innocent mistake obscuring a character’s line becomes a tragic recount of his failed marriage and resulting depression. Reality can never fully be evaded – the blue uniforms can be observed in the fringes of the stage, amid petticoats and tuxedos – however, Hartley gives us a moving reminder of the power of the theatre – allowing us to, in the Man’s own words, “escape the dreary horrors of the world,” if only for a short while.
The play-within-a-play concept is taken to new heights by director Rob Hartley in alluding to MUSE history, wherein each night, after a power failure ruins a climactic moment, past presidents cameo as the Superintendent, setting and setting the record in motion again, a touching tribute to a society which has brought so much joy to Seymour theatres over the years.
Simultaneously gaudy and refined, extraordinary and banal, MUSE’s The Drowsy Chaperone is a must-see. Even the most derisive cynics, jaded by ludicrous misunderstandings and implausible happy endings, will find themselves swept up in its sheer spectacle, the show-stopping numbers, dazzling costumes and quirky choreography enough to melt any cold heart.