A role called “Man in Chair” might initially seem to be a peripheral character in a show, almost a generic piece of scenery. So it could come as a surprise that an actor would eagerly take on the part not once but twice. But it might be the role of a lifetime for Van Ackerman. Trained as an actor, he’s been in Cincinnati for the better part of two decades as the publicist for the Broadway in Cincinnati series and more recently handling marketing and public relations for the Cincinnati Arts Association, the company that manages the Aronoff Center and Music Hall.
A decade ago, Ackerman saw the Broadway production of the Tony Award-winning musical The Drowsy Chaperone with his sister and told her, “You know that character who sat in the chair? I’m going to play him one day.” His prediction came true in 2011, when he sat in the chair for a production by Cincinnati Music Theatre, a local community theater. It was his first time back onstage in 18 years. He’s about to embark on the role again, this time at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater.
“He really speaks to me,” Ackerman says. “The last time I did the show with CMT, the run was just too short. Just as it was ending, I was finally relaxing into the role. I knew as an actor there was more to be discovered. Plus, I missed him! I retained the lines for about six months after I did the show — I kept running them everyday because I missed him. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun if somebody else did the show and I could do it again?’ never thinking it was going to happen. Then, sure enough, the Incline announced they were going to do it. I auditioned and it’s happening again.”
The Drowsy Chaperone is a multilayered musical. It’s about Man in Chair, who escapes from his dreary and sometimes frustrating existence via recordings of long-ago musicals. With an LP on his record player, he begins to imagine his favorite show: The Drowsy Chaperone from 1928. (It’s a show entirely made up for this musical.) The jaunty story of a show-business wedding is full of colorful characters and comic misadventures that come to life around him. He’s awash in trivia about the show and interrupts to offer the audience tidbits. And real life intrudes, especially his nosy landlord.
“What sets Drowsy apart is the musical wrapped in this monologue by this goofy, darling man,” Ackerman says.
Ackerman confesses that the character resonates with him because they are similar personalities with similar interests.
“He’s a musical theater aficionado; he loves musicals,” he says. “He’s very sad and depressive, a bit antisocial. He begins the show very blue, very sad. He lives through escaping into musical theater. It’s really his salvation.”
Seeing the Broadway production with his sister elicited that strong response from Ackerman because Man in Chair “happens to be my own personality type,” he says.
“That’s why the role worked so well for me. For me, the biggest thing about him is his desperate need to connect. He’s constantly looking for validation from the audience. ‘Am I right?’ ‘Do you hear me?’ He’s always asking for a response. His nature is to escape, go somewhere that he doesn’t have to think at all. For him, that’s musical theater.”
Ackerman’s had similar experiences, especially his 26th birthday. “I was in grad school, all alone. I’d just gotten the cast recording of Cats. I made myself dinner and listened to it all night,” he says. “It was a ‘Man in Chair’ moment. Pure escape. It brought me out of a melancholy, depressive state to something that was much happier.”
The Drowsy Chaperone — the recording that Man in Chair so loves — is a joyous, silly blast of escapist entertainment. “The music is such an acknowledgment of all those fun Jazz musicals from the 1920s with goofy, funny lyrics,” Ackerman says. “That’s what musicals were about.”
“I’m very emotional and I love sad moments,” he continues. “I’m really drawn to sadness and darker things. It’s just so sweet. It touches your heart. I’m very heart-centered, and he’s very heart-centered.”
Cincinnatians’ hearts are likely to be touched by Ackerman’s reprise of this iconic role in August.
THE DROWSY CHAPERONE will be presented by Cincinnati Landmark Productions at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater from Aug. 2-27. Tickets/more info: cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com.