Workhouse Arts Center delivers a rollicking good ‘Drowsy Chaperone’

Top-tier comedic performances abound in this perfectly executed love letter to musical theater.

It is rare to see a production turn B+ material into an A+ show, given how difficult it is to build on a shaky foundation. But the Workhouse Arts Center and director Frank Shutts have done it with The Drowsy Chaperone. These are Broadway-quality performances with stunning vocals, riotously hilarious acting, thoughtful and eye-popping set design, a stellar orchestra — this is a production without a weak link.

You may have heard of the mega-musical: now meet the meta-musical. The Drowsy Chaperone features a middle-aged theater fan, named in the program Man In Chair, who lovingly plays for the audience the record of his favorite musical: The Drowsy Chaperone. We “watch” it with him in his head as it plays out live in his living room. The Man is magnificently performed by Jeffrey Davis, who is believable, lovable, hilarious, and enchanting in the role. His line delivery reads as totally sincere, and he more than makes up for any shortcomings in the material with his three-dimensional performance.

Steve Cairns as Feldzieg, Jarod Glou as Ensemble, Darren Badley as Gangster, Phil Krzywicki as Underling, Noah Mutterperl as Robert Martin, Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo as Janet Van de Graaf, Kevin Donlan as Gangster, and Ariel Kraje as Ensemble in ‘The Drowsy Chaperone.’ Photo by Mike Stevens.

The play-within-a-play Drowsy Chaperone debuted in 1928 and somehow inexplicably makes fun of that era’s musicals, which is a thought-provoking commentary on Golden Age musicals’ reliance on tropes in the first place. The in-show Chaperone’s plot loosely revolves around several romances and accompanying hijinks, and the script is well-performed by this spectacular cast — even when it’s not the funniest on paper — enough to create a rollicking good time from beginning to end. Stefan Sittig’s choreography and Ariel Kraje’s work as dance captain shine. Roger Ebert once said that you’ll know a good show when “you forget for two hours your Social Security number and where your car is parked.” Luckily I was Ubering.

Other standout performances include — well, all of them. Just a few of the best: Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo’s performance as Janet Van de Graaf showcases her astonishing physical performance skills, comedic chops both independently and operating narratively in the ensemble of a farce, seamless costume-change ability, dance skills, fluency of line delivery, and immense vocal talent; she is a sextuple threat and then some. Noah Mutterperl superbly leans into and pokes fun at the charming-not-sincere archetype as leading man Robert Martin, with fantastic comedic prowess, vocal ability, and impressive tap-dancing skills. Kristina Friedgen transcends her assignment as Janet’s tipsy — apparently “drowsy” once meant “intoxicated” — chaperone, both fluently performing the role and showing off vocal caliber. Jared Glou’s physical-comedy skills and expressiveness on stage also make him a uniquely eye-catching member of the ensemble.

Shakil Azizi is consistently gut-bustingly funny as Adolfo with physical comedy and line delivery skills that give Bugs Bunny a run for his money. Darren Badley and Kevin Donlan’s comedic timing and performance as the Gangsters deeply impresses and wildly entertains in equally enormous measure. They pull off involved choreography that requires top-tier physical prowess to pull off — and also requires being utterly hilarious — with complete confidence and fluency. Azizi, Badley, and Donlan deliver three of the best comedic performances I’ve ever seen across media.

Oh, and there’s also a live orchestra. Under Francine Krasowska’s music direction, the orchestra is flawlessly synchronized to the madcap comedy, embedded in which there are probably hundreds of cues requiring the matching of music and performance. Krasowska has a big job and she and the orchestra nail it. Further, Robin Maline’s wig and makeup work is spectacular: it’s so easy for big expressive wigs to look fake, either because of the way the hair naturally blends or doesn’t with hairlines or because of excessively shiny synthetic strands, and these wigs don’t have either problem. On top of that, they’re just fun.

LEFT: Claire Jeffrey as Kitty and Steve Cairns as Feldzieg; CENTER: Ariel Kraje as Ensemble, Odette Gutierrez del Arroyo as Janet Van de Graaf, and Jarod Glou as Ensemble; RIGHT: Shakil Azizi as Aldolfo, in ‘The Drowsy Chaperone.’ Photos by Mike Stevens.

Any problems in the production come down to issues with a script and songs that are there to poke fun at tropes without being the most musically satisfying or satirically insightful, but magnetic performances, incredible dancing, and vocal chops make any problems irrelevant. The show, which debuted in Toronto in 1998, also has some jokes about gay people that are representative of the time. Jeffrey Davis’ performance appears to lovingly reclaim them, however, reappropriating the show’s gags about both queerness and loving musical theater. With regard to the latter, Davis’ performance — especially in the show’s final scenes — asks: Why would anyone ever make fun of someone for loving something this much? What is mockable about having interests this genuine and knowledge this deep? He loves what he loves and owns it. You can’t touch this guy.

The Drowsy Chaperone at the Workhouse Arts Center is a performance delivered by true professionals and lovers of the craft; and complemented by its meta nature, the show is a perfectly executed love letter to the musical theater genre. While doing so, it is some of the best theater I’ve seen in years.

Running Time: Approximately two hours with one 15-minute intermission

The Drowsy Chaperone plays through June 23, 2024 (Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, Sunday at 2 PM), at the Workhouse Arts Center’s W-3 Theater located at 9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, VA. Purchase tickets ($25–$40) at the box office, online, or by calling 703-584-2900.

The program for The Drowsy Chapeone is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional at Workhouse Arts Center for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so.

The Drowsy Chaperone
Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Dan McKellar


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