'Drowsy Chaperone' is the musical for those who hate musicals

tstevens@newsobserver.comMay 4, 2013 

  • Details

    What: “The Drowsy Chaperone” by N.C. Theatre.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through May 12; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

    Where: Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh.

    Cost: $21-$63.

    Info: 919-996-8700 or nctheatre.com.

The N.C. Theatre’s production of “The Drowsy Chaperone” has the feeling of a reunion.

Raleigh’s Beth Leavel and Clay Aiken lead a company that includes three actors from the original Broadway production that won five Tony Awards, including Leavel’s honor as the best actress in a supporting role in a musical in 2007.

The show is directed by Casey Hushion, who was the assistant director of the Broadway production. She is doing her 19th show at NCT.

Aiken was the runner-up in 2003 on “American Idol,” has sold 6 million albums, has made dozens of television appearances, co-authored a best-selling book and performed on 11 concert tours that sold out some of the nation’s top venues.

Leavel has her Tony, theater’s highest annual award, and was nominated for a second time for her role in “Baby It’s You.”

“Drowsy” will be the first time they have shared the NCT stage, although both have a history with NCT. Leavel is a Broughton High, Meredith College and UNC-Greensboro graduate.

Aiken was a singer who got involved in theater because musicals gave him a chance to sing. His first audition was for N.C. Theatre’s 1996 production of “1776.”

His chorus teacher at Raleigh’s Leesville Road High encouraged the 17-year-old to go for the experience of auditioning – one that would be good practice and pressure-free since he was too young to be seriously considered.

He landed the role of “man in the leather apron” and he sat in a chair on stage for much of the production.

Seventeen years later, Aiken is back on the NCT stage – and he sits in a chair for much of the show.

The story is told through Aiken, who is aptly named “The Man in the Chair.”

“We’ve come full circle. All of these marvelous actors and dancers are performing all around me and I just sit,” Aiken said between rehearsals.” “I want to wave my hand and say, ‘I’m still here.’”

Leavel has been involved with “Drowsy” since it was developed for the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. The play originally was written as a wedding gift for actors Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graaf, and it languished for years before Leavel and the cast assembled to refine the show in Los Angeles. Hushion and Leavel said it was the most collaborative process in which they have ever been involved.

The show was so well received in Los Angeles that it was moved to Broadway.

“The Drowsy Chaperone” has a show within a show. “The Man in the Chair” is listening to a recording of an old musical, also called “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and the musical comes to life in his mind. The audience sees what he imagines.

The fictional musical revolves around the upcoming marriage of an oil tycoon to a Broadway star. They are surrounded by gangsters, a producer, an aviator and assorted other characters, including the star’s alcoholic chaperone.

The gangsters and the producer are doing their best to stop the wedding, but others are in favor of the wedding. Along the way there are various misidentifications.

As he listens to the music from the fictional musical, “The Man in the Chair” makes comments on the fictional show, the characters and the actors playing those characters.

He comments a lot. Aiken counted his words during one of his sit-in-the-chair times while dancers spun, a blindfolded skater rolled past, and an actor said she came from the part of France where they make toast.

“3,548 words,” he said during a break.

Almost every word is delivered without prompting. The other actors ignore him. They aren’t really there.

“I am on my own,” Aiken said. “Nobody on the stage ever looks at me.”

The show moves audiences, Leavel said. She had never seen it until she saw Western Carolina University’s production.

She cried.

But the heart of the story is the reactions of the man-in-the-chair to the show.

“It is hilarious and yet so moving,” she said. “They gave me a box of tissues. This show means so much to me. You’re sitting at home unemployed and you get a call to go to Los Angeles immediately and it changes your life.”

She keeps the Tony beside her bed and likes to take it on the road with her, because it sparks excitement among younger actors when they can see, touch and hold stage acting’s Holy Grail.

The brass and bronze medallion on the award spins, a metaphor for the nature of theater acting. Just because you win a Tony doesn’t mean you’ll be cast again.

She recently auditioned for a commercial and didn’t get the part, she was told, because she didn’t look enough like the child in the ad. The child is her son.

But there was no question Leavel would be asked to join the NCT production, and landing Aiken was a bonus. Aiken said he remembers how well he was treated at that first audition years ago.

“Who knows it would have happened if it hadn’t been a good experience,” he said.

Aiken said this is the musical for people who say they hate musicals. In fact, among his first lines is: “I hate musicals.”

But “The Man In The Chair” really doesn’t hate musicals, and Aiken said he has been thoroughly bitten by the stage since making his Broadway debut in “Spamalot” in 2008.

“Musicals teach us so much about ourselves and each other,” he said. “In this show, you are watching this show within the show and laughing, and slowly you begin to understand that the show isn’t about this imaginary show. It is about the man and the life that he has lived and is living. And it breaks your heart.”

Musicals can do that, Aiken said, because they give the audience the chance to expand their perspective.

“The theater is like a fantasy world,” he said. “In real life, people don’t just burst into song about their feelings. But wouldn’t it be good if sometime they really did?”

Stevens: 919-829-8910

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