UT students take on challenging musical in program’s finale

12:00 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017 Austin360
Natasha Davison (choreographer, center) and Nick Mayo (director, right) during rehearsals for “The Drowsy Chaperone” at the University of Texas. Contributed by Lawrence Peart

A show within a show, “The Drowsy Chaperone” tests the limits of the musical genre. On one level, it is a celebration of the giddy often mindless musicals of the 1920s. On another, it is a sharp critique of the stereotypes and cultural shorthand of the day.

As such, it makes an ideal candidate for a college musical theater program like the one at the University of Texas that, despite some high points, did not work out and will suspend operations — while Texas State University ramps up its efforts — with this carefully chosen material, while continuing to probe the history of theater for all its shifting meanings.

We asked director Nick Mayo about the musical that plays Dec. 6-10 at the Payne Theatre. Getting into the 1920s spirit of the show, he sent us some telegraphic notes.

Warning: The plot is ridiculously complicated. You see, a musical theater fan called Man in Chair introduces a show within a show called “The Drowsy Chaperone” about a mixed-up wedding that includes gangsters, mistaken identities and exotic locales, all of which infiltrate the Man in Chair’s apartment.

American-Statesman: “The Drowsy Chaperone” starts as a parody of American musicals of the 1920s. What are the key characteristics of this period?

● Vaudeville, vaudeville, vaudeville!

● Spit takes, physical comedy, clowning, fashion, word play, specialty acts, acrobatics, dance and magic.

● Characters and plot lines were created for/by the performers, many of whom began their careers in vaudeville. Performers cut their teeth on the Orpheum Circuit and then found their way to headlining shows on Broadway in musical theater.

● The Ziegfeld Follies.

The story, songs and performers are introduced by the Man in Chair, who plays the cast album of his favorite musical, a fictional show called “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Why is he important?

● The Man in Chair is our narrator. Our friend. Our emcee. We see ourselves in him. He’s a super fan. He represents the part in each of us that says: “I’m not afraid to care this much. I love this. I care about this. I see its worth. I’m informed and shaped by its beauty and I want to share it with you.” That’s the place is where our individual artistry lives and that is what the audience leaves exploring for themselves.

● Co-creator (with Bob Martin) Don McKellar says that “Drowsy” could even be considered a “one-man show with a musical in it” and the Man in Chair is the main character. Guest artist Scott Shipman masterfully puts his own idiosyncrasies and anxieties into the role to add dimension and heart to the role.

Right away, we understand that the Man in Chair is an unreliable and sometimes inept narrator. What goes wrong?

● The “outside world” continually interrupts the Man in Chair on his journey. He’s able to “pause” the album and explain things to the audience. He is able to go back and repeat things for our benefit.

● The record skips.

● He puts on the wrong record for Act 2.

● He suffers a blood sugar attack.

● He gets caught up in digressions about his own personal life as it relates to the musical.

● The power goes out.

● He has a version of “talent crushes” on each of the characters.

● He interrupts the action.

Of course in those days, the stories in musicals were excuses to perform song-and-dance numbers, so little attention was paid to the development of plot or characters. But as a contemporary audience, we get that, right?

● This is a situation where the Man in Chair really helps us out. Through his joy and passion for the piece we understand the larger construct. He not only shares his undying love for the show with us — he also leads a bit of a theater history lesson as we twist and turn our way through the album.

In an earlier interview, you suggested that this musical embraces its subjects through the idea of “radical inclusion.” What do you mean by this?

● I think that musical theater itself is an art form of radical inclusion. It’s a form that leaves no one on the outside.

● The theater has always been a refuge for social outcasts who search for community through storytelling. One thing that makes musical theater radically inclusive is the fact that it combines the communities of theater, dance and music into one glorious art form. A trifecta of quirk and radical inclusion.

● It’s a really sneaky thing that happens with “The Drowsy Chaperone.” The Man in Chair transforms us. His love for the art form knows no borders. It makes him happy. Joy begets joy. Love begets love. We find ourselves part of a dialogue that is building on itself with joy and positivity as the motor. It’s very special and the most enjoyable form of escapism.

● Still, this style is challenging. It requires total physical and emotional engagement. It’s exhausting. It’s a style that is not done often. This is a new vocabulary for the students. It’s thrilling to watch them discover this style together.

● The UT students call themselves the Unicorns. Their program was cut when they arrived and they have really leaned on each other and created a community for themselves within the department of theater and dance.

Is it possible that audiences might miss the point of the parody and think that the stereotypes are presented seriously?

● I certainly hope not. I think with the rise in popularity of satire in theater, television and cinema that audiences tend to understand satirical humor more and more.

● The broadness in the characters and stylized movement in juxtaposition to the Man in Chair helps us realize that we are keeping it light. It’s clear to audiences that for the next hour and a half we are not taking ourselves very seriously. It’s an opportunity to shed a bit of that façade of reverence and get a little soft brained about it.

● I trust audiences to come in with a level of curiosity and stay open-minded and open-hearted.

Is a college setting the right place to explore all the layers of meaning?

● The students get to use all of the tools in their actor tool belts: singing, dancing, acting, character development, physical comedy, theater history.

● It’s a perfect show for these students. They are the last class graduating from the UT with an emphasis on musical theater. The program is no longer accepting applicants. This show gives them an opportunity to use all of their training and come together with an explosion of joy and love letter to the American musical theater.

● This ensemble is tight. They have had to be each other’s support system throughout their four-year training.

Finally, we have to ask: the sort of snooty Man in Chair seems at times a sad character, an anachronism himself, seeking escape in old-fashioned musicals without coming to a full sense of self-knowledge. How does an actor play that?

● The success comes from the actor staying connected to his need. He needs to feel better. He’s not satisfied with his current “nonspecific sadness” and he goes about an action to make himself feel better.

● It’s no secret that the Man in Chair is very special to me. I think very highly of him. He’s no different than anyone else. He’s got highs and lows and struggles to stay present and positive in a world of variables that can sometimes feel dark. He takes control by turning off the news and turning on a show tune.

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