The Playbill for the Broadway production of The Drowsy Chaperone describes it as “a loving send-up of the frivolously inconsequential stage musicals of the Jazz Age,” which, if you ask a cynic like me, is an extremely redundant way of saying something is, well, a musical.
My opinions about musicals aside, I have to admit that J.W. Morrissette, director of Parkland College Theatre’s production The Drowsy Chaperone, makes it sound quite enticing. The musical’s premise is that a character known simply as “Man in Chair” plays the cast recording to his favorite musical, and, as it plays, the cast appears and performs the musical for him in his living room.
I had a chat with Morrissette, whose enthusiasm for the show is pretty infectious. Read on to learn more about his cast, his crew, and the experience of putting together a meta-musical extravaganza!
Smile Politely: The Drowsy Chaperone has been a hit since its debut at the Toronto Fringe Festival. What do you think makes this show so popular?
J.W. Morrissette: This show has all the elements that make musical theatre so much fun. There certainly is attention paid to the musicals of the 1920s, but there is a contemporary framework that brings a modern charm to the work. The comedic look back also makes this one of the most enjoyable pieces of theatre you are likely to encounter.
SP: Like The Actor’s Nightmare, another play you recently directed, this musical has a very “meta” aspect. Are there specific challenges of directing shows like these?
Morrissette: Absolutely there are challenges to a show with meta-theatrical aspects. But—that is what makes theatre so great. Both in The Drowsy Chaperone and The Actor’s Nightmare there is an invitation for the audience to openly embrace the fact that what they are seeing is a show. Live theatre is built to make that an exciting and invigorating experience. Everyone knows they bought a ticket to come see a show — shows that openly acknowledge that offer a thrilling way to bring the audience into the show.
SP: What can you tell me about your cast?
Morrissette: We are an incredibly diverse and multitalented group. The cast consists of students from Parkland, students from the U of I, and community members who have all volunteered their talents (and time) to be part of this process. They bring with them some incredible talents that, frankly, can only be seen in this production, at this time, at Parkland Theatre. We suffer from an embarrassment of riches with the talent level in our community. There are so many wonderful artists who make central Illinois their home and sometimes I think we forget how fabulous that makes our local theatre scene. I might add — since this is a musical — that that includes some incredible musicians as well. Music, singing, dancing, and acting all combined in a wonderful night at the theatre: sounds heavenly doesn’t it?!
SP: Due to the musical comedy’s setting in the 1920s, there are many opportunities for fancy set pieces and costumes. Who designed these elements, and which ones do you fancy the most?
Morrissette: Our set was designed by Julie Rundell, our lights by Sean Murphy, our costumes by Malia Andrus, our music director is David Zych, our choreographer is Jean Korder, our stage manager (the unsung hero of the theatrical world) is Stacy Walker, and our assistant director is Olivia Bagan. This team of folks (and many others of great talents) all combined forces to create the world that our production of The Drowsy Chaperone inhabits. I couldn’t possibly single out one element as my favorite because these artists have collaborated so much that the combined whole is impossible for me to separate. I can say this: The Drowsy Chaperone is the ultimate celebration of musical theatre. It shouldn’t be missed.
SP: How is directing a play different than directing a musical?
Morrissette: Well, it is often a lot more fun — that’s for certain. Not to spoil anything or give anything away, but there is a number in the show that involves dancing monkeys. Yes, dancing monkeys. During one rehearsal I was able to scream, “Dance monkeys, dance!” with all seriousness and without insult. How could that not be fun?! In truth, I find the collaboration of all the artists (music director, choreographer, assistants) so incredibly rewarding. You may or may not find that collaboration in a non-musical. The musical format gives us a great deal of permission to explore our imaginations, and I value that greatly. That isn’t to say a non-musical doesn’t offer similar things, but, as a director, it is truly a joy to stretch your creative talents and challenge yourself with explorations to which music and dance open the door.
Morrissette’s enthusiasm, paired with the involvement of theatre all-stars Malia Andrus, David Zych, and Stacy Walker, make it difficult for even a cynic like me to sit this one out.
The Drowsy Chaperone runs April 16th through May 2nd, with a Sunday matinee on April 26th. Tickets run from $10 to $16, and can be reserved here or purchased prior to the show at the box office.
Photos provided by Parkland College Theatre.