Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 2, 2021

The Barnstormers bid farewell to Swirnow Theater with The Drowsy Chaperone

By SOPHIA LIN | April 23, 2021

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COURTESY OF SOPHIA LIN

Sophomore Hanna Al-Kowsi played the titular character in The Drowsy Chaperone.

The Barnstormers are back with their first ever fully-filmed musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. The show premiered last Friday and played over the weekend, and it is set to return with more showings this weekend due to popular demand.

The show was filmed entirely in person, not a Zoom screen in sight. Due to the pandemic, it was made available for viewing via livestream. However, in-person watch parties around campus last weekend gave students the chance to watch in an auditorium, recreating the pre-pandemic theater experience, though with masks and social distancing.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a shameless, boisterous musical set in the 1920s. The central story revolves around starlet Janet Van de Graaff’s decision to marry tycoon Robert Martin, in effect giving up her career on the stage. From there, a series of shenanigans ensues, mostly in the form of attempts to call off the wedding. All this is paired with sporadic commentary from the Man in Chair, a Broadway obsessive who speaks directly to the audience.

For me, knowing little about theater and even less about the original musical added the intrigue of not knowing quite how it would all play out. So on Friday night, I settled in, ready to be entertained and dazzled.

Immediately evident, the first twist is the Man in Chair (senior Ritika Kommareddi) who speaks to us from a dorm room, sipping from a giant teacup. His engaging, humorous monologue really sets the tone, and before you know it, you’re transported back to the glamorous Jazz Age of the show within a show.

As the room transforms into a stage, the opening number “Fancy Dress” starts, introducing us to the key characters. Janet (junior Abena Ababio) and Robert (senior Keelin Reilly) are there of course, along with the wealthy hostess of the wedding, Mrs. Tottendale (junior Sandy Clancy), and her manservant known as Underling (senior Hamilton Sawczuk).

More larger-than-life characters appear, including Feldzieg (senior Ben Leach), a Broadway producer wanting Janet to remain in his play Feldzieg’s Follies; Kitty (sophomore Caroline Colvin), a showgirl hoping to replace Janet as the star of Follies; Robert’s best man George (junior Philip Barsky); a womanizer Aldolpho (freshman Raul Arevalo); and two pastry chefs (seniors Regan Stradtmann-Carvalho and Mickey Sloat). The self-explanatory Trix the Aviatrix (junior Tara Desporte) shows up as well. And finally, there’s the titular character, the Drowsy Chaperone (sophomore Hanna Al-Kowsi), tasked with keeping Janet away from Robert until their wedding.

Exuberant, showy and wonderfully choreographed, “Fancy Dress” stands out as one of my favorite numbers. As it wraps up, we start getting into the story. The two pastry chefs reveal themselves to be gangsters whose boss has invested in the Follies. They blackmail Feldzieg to sabotage the wedding, in order to keep Janet as the leading lady of the play.

As Feldzieg sets things in motion, Robert starts feeling uncertain about the wedding. Along with George, the two begin to nervously tap dance, leading to the indelible and extremely well-done number “Cold Feets.” From here, what follows is all sorts of mayhem, from a case of mistaken identity to a failed seduction to a one-of-a-kind recipe. Throughout its 1.5-hour runtime, I can say with certainty that there’s never a dull moment.

While it starts to feel quite like a regular theater experience a few numbers in — a huge kudos to the cast and crew for that — this production differed in important ways. For one, all the actors had to wear masks and stay socially distanced. Despite this, the sound couldn’t have been better, and for good reason: Nothing was left to chance.

Junior Lara Ann Villanueva, the assistant sound designer and audio engineer, highlighted the technical challenges associated with putting on the show in an interview with The News-Letter.

“The choice to overdub most of the audio meant we had to collect individual actors’ audio, foot foley and sound effects to create the illusion of the theater,” she said. “This was the route that would provide us with the cleanest audio unimpeded by masks and give us control of levels after the fact.”

However, this was only one of the many challenges that came with trying to produce a musical in these times. The actors felt a noticeable shift in producing a show under COVID-19 restrictions versus putting on a live production.

“We couldn’t sing in Swirnow [Theater], we could only dance and act when spaced apart,” Leach said. “It almost didn’t feel like theater.”

But aside from COVID-19 restrictions, this production was special in another way for the Barnstormers. The Drowsy Chaperone marks their last show in Swirnow Theater before the University begins construction on the future student center

Director Clare Edmonds mentioned the legacy of the theater in her director’s note.

“This production is dedicated to every artist who has tread the boards in Swirnow Theater — with its corners full of sawdust, the cluttered light-lock, the layers of chipped paint pulling up with the spike tape, reminding us of productions past,” she wrote. “The spirit of every Barnstormer who has ever worked in this theater was with us as we navigated this feat.”

In an interview with The News-Letter, Leach described The Drowsy Chaperone as a worthy finale for Swirnow Theater.

“We were able to send off Swirnow in a really wonderful way, with a musical that celebrates the history and joy of musical theater,” he said. “Every member of the Barnstormers was fully invested in making this the best show we’ve ever put on, and I think we pulled it off.”

On that, I would have to agree. Even watching on my 13-inch laptop screen, the escapist quality of the show was undeniable. If the elaborate costumes — and yes, they are elaborate — don’t transport you to a whole other reality, then the jazzy, jaunty music surely will. By the time The Drowsy Chaperone reaches its conclusion, it becomes clear that what you’ve just watched is an incredibly special production with a whole lot of heart.

Producer Deb Weidman noted that The Drowsy Chaperone was her last show with the Barnstormers.

“I couldn’t imagine my time at Hopkins without the Barnstormers,” she said. “Creating this show has been a dream come true, especially for our seniors graduating in May, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

As the Man in Chair memorably says, “It does what a musical is supposed to do. It takes you to another world, and it gives you a little tune to carry with you in your head for when you’re feeling blue.” And despite a journey filled with unprecedented adversities, the Barnstormers did just that and more.

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