Pit & Balcony Tackles a Contemporary & Offbeat Musical Comedic Masterpiece

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 769   By: Robert E Martin

09th May, 2013     0

As they come to the conclusion of their 2013 season amidst an explosion of fresh color and renewal that only Spring can deliver, Pit & Balcony are poised to present The Drowsy Chaperone, a contemporary musical comedy with an ingenious narrative framework involving a lonely, musical-loving schlemiel with a hyperactive fantasy life and the showgirl heroine of his dreams.
A musical unlike any other, The Drowsy Chaperonestarted in 1997 as a gift from writer Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison for the stag party of British comedian Robert Martin (no relation to the comedic author penning this piece) and Janet Van De Graaf. While it started as a spoof of old musicals, it was reshaped for the 1998 Toronto Fringe Festival. After being featured in the 2004 Festival of New Musicals, Broadway producer Kevin McCollum was captivated and committed to bringing The Drowsy Chaperone to Broadway, where it went into development for three years and opened in May 2006 at Broadway's Marquis Theatre, winning a Tony Award for Best Book and Best Score. It also played in London on the West End, opening in June 2007 and winning several Oliver Award nominations.
For director Brandon Bierlein, there are numerous factors about this comedic confection that distinguishes it from other comedies in the lexicon of contemporary theatre. “TheDrowsyChaperone sets the scene for so much audience interaction, and in such a hilarious fashion,” states Bierlein.
The show focuses on the fundamentals of musical theatre; I believe this piece has become so popular because Drowsy touches base on really, everything and anything you could want or expect from a musical, including fabulous narration from our leading man. The Man in Chair, whom is played by Paul Lutenske. This really makes this show special. Martin wrote fantastic, modern day narration from the point of view of a quirky divorcee who is wildly passionate about musical theatre. He speaks to the audience directly throughout the play, and interacts with them as he leads them through each production number and scene, of course including his two cents the whole way. In fact, he really hates some of the numbers in the show, but it's still his favorite… overall. And for good reason! His interaction with the audience and ensemble is priceless, and sets this musical at the highest bar for entertainment. While every musical is only ever presented for an audience, TheDrowsyChaperone makes that a wonderful, inventive joke in and of itself.”
Being a musical as well as a comedy about the impact of Broadway musicals on people, it seems this would appear to be a challenging work to stage & produce. What are some of the bigger challenges involved for Bierlein as a Director of this production?
The production number aspect of Drowsy was initially daunting,” he reflects.  “The narration must be spliced with huge production numbers in a way that must run very smoothly; there is nothing more difficult than a script that calls for such perfect comedic timing. As an ensemble, we struggled with finding the rhythm for this play, in that it must be so direct and in your face.”
“As a young director, I tend to gravitate toward straight plays and 'dramadies'. I love working organically (free form blocking/staging, lots of character building and coaching), but with a musical of TheDrowsyChaperone's capacity, rehearsals had to be scheduled almost military-like. Working with such a large production team and cast has proven to be a very positive and helpful challenge for me as a young director. Scheduling has been a nightmare at times, but also a blessing in that we've had to stay on our toes and work with what we've got.”
Bierlein adds that the cast size alone made this production an extremely difficult work to cast, as the show calls for 10 men and 10 women, including chorus. “We were forced to work around a lot of schedules to ensure a solid cast that could handle the material. Auditions were different for many of the seasoned performers at Pit & Balcony, because I felt it necessary to include a dance audition with our choreographer, Britney Reed. Apparently a dance portion of the audition is not regular at Pit. While it wasn't necessarily about how well they danced, I was able to see how different actors reacted under the pressure of learning a dance and presenting it on the spot. That's show business. Many struggled here, a lot more than I imagined they would. Due to the magnitude of the dance for this show, to me it was necessary and integral as a part of the audition process. It also opened my eyes to a lot of things that could (and often did) come up with the actors taking direction in general.”
“Many of the cast members have worked with Pit & Balcony before, and I have worked with absolutely none of them. As a newcomer, their knowledge of the space and logistics of the theatre was invaluable. At the same time, I have come to see that I have an entirely different way of working than what many cast members are used to. However, I certainly don't see this as a negative, but rather a learning experience for all of us.”
Are there any components involved with this production that Bierlein is trying to emphasize or bring out as a director?
“Our production of TheDrowsyChaperone is focused entirely on the audience. Each number, each scene, is staged as to involve and relate with the audience by any means possible, whether they are spoken to directly by the narrator, or through characters interacting with the audience in the house seats. There are several moments throughout the play where the audience will actually need to interact to continue with the show. I believe we have created a really in-your-face and direct conversation with the audience; no one's grandpa will be falling asleep on my watch,” he laughs.
The Man in Chair describes the “real life” of all the “actors” performing in TheDrowsyChaperone,” continues Bierlein, “and I have created introduction pieces during the Man in Chair's mini-biographies of each character. We were able to have a lot of fun, and present often-silent interpretations of the actors playing each character in the show.”
As for Bierlein's own background, he graduated from  Western Michigan University in April of 2011, with a Bachelors in Theatre Performance, emphasis in Directing, and a minor in Comparative Religion. While in Kalamazoo he worked on numerous plays as director, actor, playwright, and producer. He worked with the Fire Historical and Cultural Center, Fancy Pants Theatre, Whole Art Theatre, and on countless shows with Western's educational theatre.
“Though I've worked with many dance choreographers and music directors, TheDrowsyChaperone was my first time directing a full out musical,” he explains. “Some of my directing credits in Kalamazoo include Dark Play or Stories for Boys, The Clean House, Eurydice, Bug, Life Under Water, andThe Butcher of Baraboo. I worked intensely with the Kalamazoo New Play Project for two years as director of their summer stock productions, and also as director and playwright for almost a dozen new plays written by Michigan residents, and many undergraduate and graduate level playwriting students at Western.”
“As a student at Western, I served as Teaching Assistant for the theatre department's upper level directing course. In the summer of 2009 I began work as Assistant Director to Tectonic Theatre Company members Kelli Simpkins and Leigh Fondakowski. Tectonic is most known for their award-winning play The Laramie Project. The show that would come to be known as Good Death was a community conversation about euthanasia, and we spent many months researching the issue, paying particularly close attention to Jack Kevorkian's infamous trial starting in 1999.”
The process by which Tectonic creates theatre, known as “moment work,” was eye opening for me as a young theatre professional. My work with Kelli has been invaluable in directing many pieces over the years.”
Pit & Balcony's production of The Drowsy Chaperone will play May 10-12 and May 17-19th. Friday & Saturday shows are at 8:00 PM and Sunday shows are at 3:00 PM. Tickets are $22.00 and available at the Pit & Balcony Box Office or by calling 989-754-6587. Pit & Balcony is located at 805 N. Hamilton St., Saginaw. Visit them online at


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