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“I Hate Theater”

Nobody falls asleep at The Drowsy Chaperone.

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Playhouse on the Square is on a roll, following a sold-out run of Hairspray with an equally dazzling production of The Drowsy Chaperone. If the new and improved Playhouse can keep the momentum going, audiences have a lot to look forward to this season.

The Drowsy Chaperone — a surprise hit if there ever was one — begins in the dark with a cranky voice calling out into the void. "I hate theater," it says, and the disoriented audience laughs sympathetically. "Well, it's always so disappointing, isn't it?" the voice continues, followed by even more sympathetic laughter and light applause. By the time the lights finally come up, illuminating a stage dressed to represent a no-frills apartment, the audience is completely simpatico with the delightfully bitter character behind all the acerbic commentary.

He's called "Man in Chair," and he shares a little prayer before the start of any live performance. In it he asks God to keep things short — two hours at the most, three is simply too much. Otherwise, he doesn't ask for much at all: a story, "a few good songs" that will take him away, and that's about it.

Man in Chair doesn't really hate the theater, of course. In fact, he seems to have a bit of an obsession with old musicals from a time when American audiences flocked to the theater eagerly anticipating some frothy new confection by George and Ira Gershwin or Cole Porter. "Now," the man laments, "it's 'Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?'"

Dear God, how I feel this grumpy man's pain. And judging from the enthusiastic response with which The Drowsy Chaperone has been greeted since it made its Broadway debut in 2006, it strikes a chord with audiences as well.

Written by a smartypants quartet Bob Martin, Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert, and Greg Morrison, The Drowsy Chaperone is both a mash note to Jazz Age musicals like No, No, Nanette and The Vagabond King and a giddy essay on what audiences really want from an evening at the theater. Plots can be completely improbable as long as the gags are funny, and the dialogue can be dumb as long as the audience isn't treated like they are. Like Man in Chair says, it's all pornography. When it comes to our lighter entertainments, the storyline can be as simple as "How do I pay for the pizza" as long as the cast and crew know how to deliver the goods. And Playhouse on the Square's Dave Landis, the creative force behind Hairspray, has assembled a cast of actors who know how to turn a tired old spit-take into a money shot.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a fantastic example of meta-theater that never takes its self-consciousness too seriously. Man in Chair plays an old LP of a forgotten (and, in fact, fictitious) musical called The Drowsy Chaperone, and as he plays the record, the musical springs to life in his apartment with characters entering and exiting through closets and kitchen appliances. When the record skips, so do the performers, and when the wrong record is played on the phonograph, the audience is treated to an uproariously wrongheaded number that seems to exist for no other purpose than to rhyme Asians with Caucasians.

Otherwise, The Drowsy Chaperone is a madcap romance fraught with misunderstanding and mistaken identity. There are punning gangsters disguised as pastry chefs, a variety of intentionally broad ethnic stereotypes, tap dances and vaudeville routines. There's even a full-fledged deus ex machina that exposes Miss Saigon's ballyhooed helicopter landing as being something less than revolutionary. All of this silliness is tacked onto a plot about a hot star of the musical stage giving up her life of glitz and glamour in order to get hitched. It's performed in one glorious hour-and-40-minute act because Man in Chair hates intermissions. God bless him.

The songs — bouncy throwaways by design — are the most forgettable ditties you'll never be able to forget, chock-full of grotesque ethnic commentary and absurd simian metaphors. Each goofy tune is a nostalgic study in human folly. Like Man in Chair says, today's sophisticated audiences would never tolerate such inappropriate content. Only we do. Well, we do as long as we're able to experience such things as an exotic reminder of antediluvian values.

Michael Gravois delivers a winning performance as Man in Chair, a curmudgeonly and sexually ambiguous role that sounds like it might have been written with the late great Paul Lynde's voice in mind. The all-star cast includes Irene Crist, Laura Stracko, Carla McDonald, John Hemphill, and Matt Reed.

A special Ostrander Award should be created right away for David Foster for receiving so many spit-takes to the face without so much as cracking a smile.

Through September 5th

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