It is human nature to find comfort in doing the same things we have done dozens of times before. It’s why we watch It’s a Wonderful Life around Christmas or order the exact same burger at the corner bar time and again. The familiar rut helps us shut out the rest of the world when life becomes overwhelming.
For “Man in Chair” — we never learn the name of The Drowsy Chaperone’s lead character in Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ latest — the cozy security blanket comes in the form of a gramophone and a well-worn stack of musical theater cast recordings. He knows each album to a pedantic level of detail, and takes no greater pleasure than sharing the listening experience with you, the audience.
Man in Chair saves his very favorite album, The Drowsy Chaperone, for nights when he is feeling melancholy. He treasures the escapism the music provides, and he cannot tolerate distractions that drag him back to reality. “Let’s disappear for a while into the decadent world of the 1920s, when the champagne flowed while the caviar chilled and all the world was a party,” says Man in Chair.
As Man in Chair drops the gramophone needle, his bare apartment erupts with the cast of The Drowsy Chaperone — a fictional musical which proceeds to poke fun at countless musical theater cliches. Man in Chair acts as our tour guide as we meet a Latin lothario (Rick Kramer), a boozy, past-her-prime flapper (Lesley Hitch), a pair of cartoonish mobsters (Chris Logan Carter, Tyler Gau) and half a dozen other Broadway stereotypes. Midway through Chaperone’s performance there is a piece of “degrading chinoiserie,” perhaps mimicking The King and I. Its yellowface is difficult to watch even as an intentionally outmoded pastiche.
Cincinnati Landmark Productions has peppered its cast with students from Kent State, Northern Kentucky University and more — the energy helps sustain a show that has its slow moments. Of these young actors, Merrie Drees is notable as the dim but oh-so-pretty Kitty. She brings a bizarre, elastic physicality to the role that keeps drawing our eyes in her direction (sometimes to the point of distraction).
Western Kentucky University’s Hope Pauly is Janet Van De Graaff, a glittering starlet turned bride-to-be — Pauly displays a pleasant Broadway voice in songs such as the pouty “Show Off.” Her handsome groom Robert (Drew Simendinger) and his best man George (Nick Wasserbauer) share a tap duet (“Cold Feets”) impressive enough that we can forgive the occasional flat note. Lesley Hitch has great fun stumbling around as the unnamed and unreliable Drowsy Chaperone.
But make no mistake: The show hinges on Van Ackerman as Man in Chair. Interviews suggest this is Ackerman’s dream role — he portrayed Man in Chair in 2011 with Cincinnati Music Theatre and was eager to return to it — and it wasn’t until after intermission that I truly understood the draw.
This unconventional character is fascinating. At the start we are tempted to write him off as a mousy theater dweeb. He sports a tawny cardigan and paces around the stage, shrugging in half-apology for his snarky comments. Gradually, however, Man in Chair drops hints about his life and the reality from which he is hiding. “I’m a very complicated person,” he offers toward the end, and we believe him. We want to know more.
The mousiness begins to look more like loneliness, the escapism looks like avoidance. His sadness feels relatable in contrast to the campy drama of his beloved Chaperone.
It is Ackerman’s obvious connection to this character that makes Man in Chair loveable and, ultimately, hard to forget. In fact, Ackerman and Man in Chair (honestly, they are difficult to separate — Van in Chair?) are the best reasons to see this otherwise generally likable, if sometimes clunky, production.
As Man in Chair narrates before the stage is illuminated, “I just want a story and a few good songs that will take me away.” Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ The Drowsy Chaperone ticks these boxes, and sneaks in a heartfelt story while we are distracted by the flashy spectacle.
Cincinnati Landmark Productions’ THE DROWSY CHAPERONE runs at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater through Aug. 27. Tickets/more info: cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com.