A reclusive, depressed man sitting in a chair listening to show tunes may not sound like fodder for musical comedy, but Layton High School is the first school in Utah to show how funny that can be as it stages "The Drowsy Chaperone."
The ambitious production, opening Thursday, is directed by Dennis Ferrin, drama teacher at the school. The cast of nearly 100 has been rehearsing since November and is backed by a small army of dedicated technicians, musicians and parent volunteers who have been working tirelessly to mount the elaborate show.
"It's laugh-out-loud funny and very entertaining," said parent volunteer Lynda Kruitbosch. "A lot of people who haven't seen it before may think that it is going to be like every other musical. I think they will be really surprised, and happy they came."
Ferrin said he fell in love with the musical when he first saw it on Broadway a few years ago. He loved it so much that he went back to see it -- again and again.
"Everybody here says that I am the man in the chair, which is probably true," Ferrin said. "I have sort of the same obsession with musicals that 'Man in Chair' does."
The audience never learns the name of Man in Chair or even what city he lives in, Ferrin said. "It's not even clear what he does in the real world or whether he can actually hold down a job."
What Man in Chair does do is take the audience on a joyous romp into his vivid imagination as he plays the audience his rare recording of "The Drowsy Chaperone," a fictitious musical of the 1920s.
Layton High School senior Casey Stratton is playing the Man in Chair, who interacts with the audience as he passionately explains the musical's outrageous plot.
"When he is feeling blue, he likes to listen to his music to 'escape from the dreary horrors of the real world,' " Stratton said, quoting his character. "He is just a really imaginative character and the show comes to life onstage. He's passionate about musicals and theater."
As Man in Chair's gloomy apartment is transformed into the glittering world of "The Drowsy Chaperone," the musical's colorful characters take their places in the spotlight. One of them is the show's star, Janet Van De Graaff, played by Layton senior Brandi Francis. Janet is a Broadway star who is planning to give up her acting career to marry an oil tycoon she hardly knows.
"She's stuck between this decision of staying in the footlights and enjoying stardom or really settling down and finding out if she is in love," Francis said.
Francis gets to show off not only her vocal skills, but also her talents as a dancer in a number where she kicks up her heels and cavorts onstage, all the while managing to change costumes seven times during the same song -- aptly titled "Show Off."
At one point in the plot, Francis said, her character has a mental breakdown as she sings a song called "Bride's Lament." The tune satirizes badly written musical lyrics, with lines like "I put a monkey on a pedestal" and "But any future I could ever care to shape includes just one two-timin' cad who drives me ape."
Man in Chair explains the lyrical assault in his setup to the song.
"Now, when you are listening to this, um, try to ignore the lyrics," Man in Chair says. "I know it will be difficult, but block them out, they're not the best. But the tune is beautiful and it truly communicates the bride's state of mind. Just ignore the lyrics."
A universal theme
Ferrin said that musical number and numerous other moments -- including dream sequences, mistaken identities, misplaced record albums and impossible plot twists (one involving an airplane) -- will be ones that musical theater lovers will recognize and relish.
Throw in a drowsy (i.e., intoxicated), spotlight-grabbing chaperone (i.e., diva), and you have the recipe for a show that won numerous Tony awards and delighted countless musical theater aficionados like Ferrin.
However, Ferrin said, audience members who aren't necessarily musical theater lovers will also get a lot out of the show.
"I think you can identify with it because everybody has those times when they are down," Ferrin said. "And everybody has something that they use to pull them out of that sort of funk that they're in."
Added Stratton: "Even if people don't like musicals, they will still enjoy this show. It's a musical, but it's just as much a comedy."