The theater is dark. A voice from the stage speaks to the waiting audience.
“I hate the theater.”
So start The sleepy chaperone in Pittsburgh CLO. The voice belongs to the protagonist, an unnamed character who only appears in the script as “Man in Chair”. The room remains dark for another good two minutes as we listen to our narrator, a great lover of the stage, share his frustration with the mediocrity of today’s musical theatre.
It’s an ironic way to start a contemporary musical, made all the more curious by the fact that our host is being played here in 2003 american idol finalist Aiken clay, a famous singer playing in a particularly non-singing role. (Aiken was slated to star in the Pittsburgh production for the first time in 2021 before the CLO was forced to cancel its original season lineup.)
When the lights come on in Man in Chair’s apartment, he settles into a night at home in his oversized beige cardigan, feeling “a little blue” and seeking an escape from reality. Our host turns to one of his favorite records (“yes, records.”), introducing Sleepy‘s show-in-the-show of the same name, “Gable and Stein’s The sleepy chaperoneDo you remember ? a 1928 musical full of “confusion, chaos and gay marriage”.
“Of course, that phrase has a different meaning now,” said Aiken, who came out gay in 2008, jokes, “but back then that just meant having fun. And that’s exactly what this show is, fun. He records and literally brings the show to life inside his bland but spacious, with actors popping out of the fridge and luxurious Murphy beds that fold down from the walls, among other clever ways J. Branson’s setting moves the story into several different spaces, including the sky above Rio de Janeiro without leaving Man in Chair’s studio.
Starting with the friend who is so excited that you are seeing his favorite show that he can barely stop watching you watch it, it gradually becomes clear that the enjoyment of Aiken’s character as the show unfolds in his apartment is actually the best part. His frequent interjections provide insight into the cast of fictional Vaudeville and Hollywood stars playing the show’s characters and trace his character’s engagement with the show and its themes over time. It takes a fairly simple plot with flat characters and peppers it with details that contextualize and critique the performances they frame.
Really, The sleepy chaperone is not a forgotten relic of the Broadway boom in the late 1920sbut a late 1990s Canadian musical with a 21st century sensibility written by songwriting partners Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison as wedding gift to their friends Bob Martin and Janet van der Graaf. (Bob Martin later joined the project and originated the role of Man in Chair in the 2006 Broadway series.)
The sleepy chaperonethe play within the play, focuses on the impending nuptials of Robert Martin (Ashley Day), a handsome son of an oil tycoon, and Janet van der Graaf (Katie Mariko Murray), a famous former showgirl who is preparing to “give up a life of glamor to get married.”
Robert and Janet are surrounded by a cast of quirky characters with their own agendas, including Janet’s boss Feldzieg (Major Attaway) who must stop the wedding if he wants to keep Janet as his leading lady, Janet’s titular chaperone (Paige Davis) who wants to get drunk and fucked, and Aldolpho (Chris Hoch), a pompous Spaniard whom Feldzieg pays to seduce the bride.
CLO’s production also includes the legendary Donna McKechnie like Mrs. Tottendale, the wealthy, clumsy, forgetful woman who arranges the wedding. McKechnie is best known for her Tony Award-winning performance in the original cast of A chorus lineand although her role here didn’t give her much to work with, I was still excited to see her perform live.
The production design elevates to meet Man in Chair’s demand for an exciting escape into the Roaring Twenties. The characters’ opulent robes and dressing gowns, designed by Gregg Barnes, the show’s original Broadway costume designer, starring Isabel Rubio, stand out against the neutral color palette of the Man in Chair apartment. However, the series’ neutral coloring still sparks plenty of visual interest, with chaotic earth-tone designs for two mobsters pretending to be pastry chefs, played with top-notch precision by brothers Parker and Blakely Slaybaugh.
A light-hearted, witty self-referential screenplay by Bob Martin and Don McKellar weaves together catchy, soulful songs to structure a 100-minute reprieve from “this dreary little world we live in,” as the escort herself puts it.
Pittsburgh CLO Presents The sleepy chaperone. Continues until Sunday, June 26. Benedum Center. 237 Seventh Street, Downtown. $29-90. pittsburghclo.org