My partner and I recently purchased a Fiat 500 Twinair. Two cylinders. 875cc. The world’s cleanest, greenest petrol engine. But turbocharged. It packs a punch. But what has this to do with theatre? Well, Squabbalogic may just be the theatrical equivalent. Small, manoeuvrable; running on the smell of an oily rag. But punching well above its weight.
The Drowsy Chaperone is a musical, with fiendishly clever book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar; music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. The first impressive aspect of Squabbalogic’s production is the set. The Hayes Theatre space is tight, to say the least, yet Lauren Peters has come up with a design as ingenious as the script: an apartment kitchen and living-room, with entrances and exits through side doors and a fridge, slap-bang in the middle. Better yet, the kitchen cupboards can be removed and swung around to reveal a chaise longue. Peters has been hands on with a team of talented craftspeople to build it, too. It works beautifully and looks entirely realistic. Elizabeth Franklin’s costumes seem well-researched have the requisite dash of nostalgia. It’s proof positive the producers (Jessica James-Moody, Luke Erickson and Craig Stewart) and director (Jay James-Moody) have carefully considered every aspect of the show and built it, on very solid foundations, from the ground up.
Jessica James-Moody’s sound design somehow ensures the band can be heard loud and clear, despite their complete invisibility. There’s no pit, so they’re tucked away in the small area behind the set. Led by Paul Geddes on piano, they don’t miss a beat: everything is timed to a tee. Monique Salle has complemented the orchestra with period choreography and, by the look of it, has pushed herself and the performers. Not everyone’s Fred, or Ginger, but that’s half the point and half the fun.
The distinguished, popular, enviably gifted,versatile Jay James-Moody has pretty much proved himself an outright genius with this one. Apart from his offstage roles, he plays the lead, as the aptly-named Man In Chair, who’s still in his pyjamas. One gets the impression he rarely has cause to wear anything else, as it’s quite dubious he leaves his apartment very often, if ever; just as he’s none too keen on answering the phone. I’m no expert but James-Moody seems to have even locked-on to a Canadian accent, emulating co-writer Bob Martin, who first played the role. I wasn’t there, in 1998, when The Drowsy Chaperone first played The Rivoli, in Toronto, nor when it debuted on Broadway some eight years later, at which point it picked up Tony Awards for best book and score. It has played Australia before, under the auspices of Melbourne Theatre Company. That was 2010 and one Geoffrey Rush played the lead. Regrettably, I didn’t catch that production either, but if Rush was in any way better or more nuanced than James-Moody, I’d be genuinely surprised: the last’s every expression and pause is optimally calibrated for comic impetus. The only evidence at my disposal as far as past productions go is via the ubiquity of YouTube and, on it, I’d plump for the local hero over the writer’s rendition any day. His shtick is understatement.
Casting is brave, inspired and judicious, refreshingly veering away from the usual suspects. For example, the accomplished Gael Ballantyne is the well-heeled Mrs Tottendale, as doddery and vague as the name suggests. Anything she lacks by way of power, control or tonality when singing is compensated by clarity, and her characterisation is excellent. As George, the best man at the wedding, or weddings, at the centre of the plot, recent WAAPA grad Ross Chisari looks like a veteran. In fact, it’s James-Moody’s bold decision to bring performers with short and long resumes together that’s one of the things I most admire here. It pays off, in spades.
Hilary Cole played the titular role is Squabbalogic’s Carrie, The Musical last year, which clearly recommended her for that of Janet Van De Graaf, bride-to-be. She’s an exceptionally good singer, with a voice both powerful and attractive; from the point of view of co-stars, she’s the dreaded triple-threat. Chris Coleman, as the stereotypical ageing butler with speech impediment, Underling, is a treat and Laurence Coy, though not as commanding as he might be, impresses, as classic, cigar-smoking impresario, Feldzieg. Michele Lansdown is the Drowsy Chaperone, who’s only real responsibility, as she sees it, is ensuring a steady intake of booze. It’s plain to see why an excellent reputation precedes her, as she takes to the role like a duck to vodka. Jamie Leigh Johnson is Kitty, the archetypal, thick-as-a-brick gangster’s moll. My only adverse issue with her was diction: there was quite a bit she uttered I simply couldn’t clearly understand. Steven Kreamer is another of those prodigiously talented young performers, with multiple string to his bow. He and Richard Woodhouse excel as gullible gangsters in the cunning disguise of punning pastry-chefs. Brett O’Neill plays Robert, Janet’s inbred (if his mental faculties are anything to go by) intended and a prancing ponce of the first order. This may well prove a breakthrough role for him. Monique Salle is another young prodigy, veritably bursting at the seams with talent. She sings up a storm and despite a relatively minor role as Trix, the aviatrix (“what we now call lesbians”), almost stealing the show. Finally, Tom Sharah milks the character of Aldolpho for all it’s worth. He might look a little like a bullfighter or Zorro, with his black cape lined with shimmering red silk, but he sounds more like an Italian fruiterer, or refugees from Wogs Out of Work. As the king of romance, he makes Narcissus look self-effacing. Ensemble members Emma Cooperthwaite and Anna Freeland complete a cast that would make any producer or director look good.
This production of The Drowsy Chaperone could be booked on Broadway without any embarrassment or hesitation. The most marginal spit-and-polish would turn it into a world-beater. Jay James-Moody is the man in the chair, in more than one respect. And I can’t think of a better one.
Featured image by Michael Francis