Summer is in full swing and so is Vancouver’s iconic Theatre Under The Stars. One of the two Broadway musicals gracing the stage of the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park this summer is the Tony Award-winning musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. And while there actually is a character in the show called the Drowsy Chaperone (played by renowned actress Caitriona Murphy), make no mistake – this production belongs to a glorious triple threat sensation by the name of Shannon Hanbury. She is absolutely dynamite in this show and the price of admission is but a small price to pay to watch this new star slay.
This musical comedy is a nod to cheesy slapstick humour, often seen in pantomime shows, while also celebrating the idealism of our image of the roaring 1920’s, complete with Great Gatsby-inspired parties, gin and jazz. The show’s premise revolves around the show’s narrator, simply named Man in Chair. After a rough day at work, he winds down by listening to the cast recording of his fav Broadway musical – "The Drowsy Chaperone". As he listens to the record and commentates on the show’s action, the story comes to life in his living room, complete with over-the-top comedic routines, high-energy dance numbers, and soaring vocals.
In this "show within the show", a wedding between a young Broadway diva and her well-to-do fiancé is about to happen at a country home, and there's a sordid cast of characters that have gathered. Who is the Drowsy Chaperone? An alcoholic woman who has one job – to chaperone the bride and make sure she doesn’t come into contact with her finance before the ceremony on the wedding day.
And as I mentioned, it is the outstanding Shannon Hanbury who steals the show as the bride-to-be, Janet. To start with, Hanbury is a phenomenal actress, singer and dancer. But she takes things further. Hanbury is a true musical theatre artist, combining all three talents to make her character come alive. She has the style down pat – every gesture down to each finger movement, as well as her vocal delivery and inflection when speaking or singing is right en pointe.
She truly embodies a young Broadway starlet in the 1920’s and kills it with the range of emotions she's able to emulate through her character throughout the show. In terms of singing, her vocals soar through the night sky, whether pouring her heart out in the ballad “Message from a nightingale” or leading the cast in the curtain call reprise of “As we stumble along”. She is also a sensational dancer who literally gets to “show off” her extensions, splits, acrobatics and showmanship in her character’s highlight number, “Show off”.
Equally outstanding is Hanbury’s counterpart, Stuart Barkley, who plays Janet’s fiancé Robert. Hanbury and Barkley are adorable together, especially in their comedic number “Accident waiting to happen”. Barkley has a charming leading man presence and his smile seems to light up the night. His voice is a delight to hear, and he is a wonderful tap dancer as well. His tap dance number “Cold Feets” is one of the highlights of the show – perfectly enhanced by the addition of Robert’s best man, George, played by the talented Blake Sartin. Together, Barkley and Sartin tear up the stage with their uplifting energy coupled with dapper style, offering shades of the great Gene Kelly. Props to creative and expert choreographer Shelley Stewart Hunt.
Also a delight to watch are Kai Bradbury and Nicholas Bradbury, who play the comedic gangsters in the show. For anyone familiar with these types of parody shows (such as Kiss Me Kate), you’ll know that having a couple of “tough” (but not really tough) gangsters was apparently a “thing” back in the golden days of Broadway. Also a “thing” was having the gangsters played by talented male dancers. And so – both Bradbury and Bradbury (I’m aware of the irony in their names) are talented male dancers, and they get to delightfully show off their split jumps, tumbling and athletic grace onstage.
The surprise of the evening are the glorious cameo appearances by Ali Watson as Trix, a female aviator who happens to show up at the wedding. Watson’s incredible belt is reminiscent of the legendary Ethel Merman and it was a joy to hear her voice ring through the night sky. I last saw Watson in Uncle Randy Production’s Rent, where she played Mimi. I felt the direction she received in that show set her up for failure. What a wonderful joy it was to see her shine and showcase her true talents in The Drowsy Chaperone.
Stefan Winfield and Lauren Gula provide nice comedic relief as Broadway producer Feldzieg and ditzy girlfriend Kitty. Sheryl Anne Wheaton and Peter Stainton do an excellent job with recreating British English musical hall humour with their slapstick portrayals of the lady of the house and her “Underling”. And Dimitrios Stephanoy is hilarious in his very passionate portrayal of self-proclaimed Latin lover, Aldolpho.
While Shawn Macdonald and Caitriona Murphy are great as the Man in Chair and Drowsy Chaperone, their characters seem to fall flat. And it’s not their fault – no matter how good the portrayals are of these characters, it will always be unlikely that audiences will care about these two characters. To be honest, they have rather boring character journeys and there’s literally nothing about them that would resonate with audiences. They don’t have the audience appeal of Janet and Robert, or the fun factor of George or Trix. Their characters are basically an afterthought.
And ironically, the Man in Chair and Drowsy Chaperone are an adequate representation of the show – an afterthought. The story doesn’t touch you. It doesn’t leave you with any lasting emotions or character journeys to think about. The story is of course predicable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – there are lots of musicals with predictable plots. But the story and music in The Drowsy Chaperone never seem to come together to be anywhere near uplifting, poignant or memorable. And while the show is funny, it's not funny enough to reach the calibre of something like The Book of Mormon. The show’s theme song is titled “As we stumble along”, and it’s basically about nothing. Which is what the show leaves you feeling.
Thank goodness for the sensational cast performances, led by Hanbury. Musical theatre fans will know that legendary diva Sutton Foster killed it when she played Janet in the original Broadway production. Hanbury’s phenomenal performance in this show has likely earned her the street cred of being the new diva of Vancouver theatre. With long-time Vancouver musical theatre queen Cailin Stadnyk relocating to Toronto to join the cast of Come From Away, you can bet that Hanbury will step into Stadnyk’s shoes and reign supreme as the new queen bee of this town's musical theatre scene.
Theatre Under The Star's (TUTS) production of The Drowsy Chaperone plays at the Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park until August 19. Visit the TUTS website for more information.