4 min

A little song, a little dance

A lot of moxie down your pants

FROM CHURCH ST TO BROADWAY? Ed Sahely plays the Producer and Scott Anderson is Underling in the newly minted version of The Drowsy Chaperone, a musical comedy for even those who hate musicals. Credit: Paula Wilson

One of the more endurable show-biz clichés is a gang of kids so full of song and dance, they just have to perform. “My dad has a barn,” it goes, “and with these old blankets for curtains….”

Countless shows use this as an excuse for the plot. But there are such gangs, and the curious history of The Drowsy Chaperone, a 1920s-esque musical comedy that just opened at Theatre Passe Muraille, is proof that moxie can give birth to a real live success story.

Two years ago, a group of performers – friends since high school – created a spoof musical as a wedding gift. Last summer, it re-emerged as a popular Fringe festival offering, garnering press raves – including a mention in Variety. John Karastamatis, normally the publicity guru at Mirvish Productions, has turned producer and invested in the current, longer version.

Just who are these kids, anyway?

Lisa Lambert is an actor and songwriter who has sold songs to TV and written numerous little musicals as “party favours.” (Rumour has it she’s also written more than 50,000 singing telegrams.) When friends Janet Vandergraff and Bob Martin got married, Lisa, the best man, decided to mount a production with only a title for inspiration – from the tag line that ended her last effort: “Be sure to join us again when we present The Drowsy Chaperone.”

The fictitious show soon became a variety night at the Rivoli, Lambert’s version of a stag and doe pre-wedding party for her pals to play in and enjoy. “It was open to the public as well,” she recalls. “We had people coming in who didn’t know what was going on.”

Among the current cast is Don McKellar (director and star of Last Night), newlyweds Vandergraff and Martin, Stella Walker (as the operatic aviatrix) and Nick Johne and Jonathan Crombie (Gilbert in Anne Of Green Gables) and as a pair of comic gangsters.

Scott Anderson, whose slight frame and big eyes are familiar from recent commercials (including Kellogg’s Pokemon promotion), plays Underling, the butler.

“I got to know these guys when I was in my 20s and moved in with them,” says Anderson. “But everybody’s worked with everybody before – Ed Sahely and Paul O’Sullivan are all from Second City, and Jennifer Irwin and Lisa have been swings there.

“We’ve been doing parody musicals for years now: Short Leave, a parody of the ’40s musical On The Town, and Rock That Rainbow, a cross between Brigadoon and Finian’s Rainbow. What we have in common is a love of old musicals and Marx Brothers comedies from the ’30s, and they tend to get all smooshed together.”

Ed Sahely is a newcomer to the ensemble (he can also be seen in the upcoming comedy TV series Not To Be Repeated, with his improv pals Jonathan Wilson and Kathy Greenwood). “I’m the character actor advancing the plot,” says Sahely. “I play the producer within the show. My star, Janet Vandergraff, is getting married and leaving my show. I have gangster money invested in it, so I’m trying to destroy the wedding.”

The show is framed by an on-stage narrator (Martin), a queeny, musical-mad recluse in his basement apartment. His fond memories of an obscure musical come alive as he plays the cast album. An on-stage orchestra, led by musical director Greg Morrison, accompanies his dreams as the cast mugs, hoofs and warbles through the pastiche plot.

“It’s not Les Miz, it’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber,” says Anderson. “It’s very audience inclusive. It plays with your memory in the sense that you’ll say: ‘Gee, didn’t I see Fred [Astaire] do that?’

“We’ve tried to retain the original sweetness that these productions have always had. We’re not making fun of them, we’re really in love with them and we want to include the audience in on that. I think that’s what’s different from landing a helicopter on stage, you know?”

With references to Noel Coward, Harold Arlen and Julie Andrews, the comedy isn’t dominated by camp or gay humour as much as it is by an insider’s affection for certain show-biz conventions. “The gay sensibility is that you remember things better than they were,” says Anderson. “And why wouldn’t you want to?”

In addition to Sahely and Anderson, the gay quotient is upped by Anderson’s partner, designer (and sometime drag queen ) Christopher (David) Richards, who co-wrote the Dora Award-winning play Mollywood. Before opening night, he spoke from his studio (“I’m absolutely coated with pink thread here”) where he was busy preparing the costumes, a big component in this odd-ball-character-driven comedy.

“I love working with Lisa,” says Richards. “She gets how crucial costumes and design are to her work.”

Richards avoided the muted pastels of some period pieces. “I want it to go ‘Pop!’ The ’20s were a very colourful point in time. We know it very well from its clichés – feather in the middle of the forehead and, of course, beads! But the show is about taking a cliché and twisting it.”

“It’s so charming,” says Sahely. “People who are jaded by musicals will love it and people who love musicals will love it, too.” Anderson concurs: “I can’t imagine an audience could leave wanting more. They get it all.”

The real life producers have high hopes for this bunch of talents nurtured in Toronto’s comedy scene, in the local film biz and on Church St. If this version of The Drowsy Chaperone does well, it will be remounted at the Royal Alex in the spring. If that happens, will Off-Off-, Off-, or even Broadway beckon?

All you need is a dream, kids… plus tap shoes, roller-skates and a tone of gold lamé.