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'Chaperone' in Good Company

March 8, 2007 By:
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Just "w-h-a-at" is Danny Burstein up to in "The Drowsy Chaperone"? Big laughs, which he gets here as Aldolpho opposite the title character played by Beth Leavel.
Nothing drowsy about Danny.

Danny Burstein's burst of top-drawer talent helps draw in the crowds to "The Drowsy Chaperone," the sunny, stunning and anything but soporific musical slap in the face wake-up call for any theater-goer who feels Broadway's been overdosing on stupid sedative-saturated musicals.

Snap out of it!

And who better to snap a picture of pell-mell pandemonium than Burstein's Aldolpho, the somewhat addled Adonis/ Latin lover whose bedroom moves are as sleek as "The Sheik," but whose pillow talk has a linguistic linen count of one -- himself.

With white-streaked hair that makes him look like he was punk'd by a skunk, Aldolpho scampers across the stage toward sexual encounters, a bedroom force to be reckoned with; after all, it's all in keeping with his philosophy that there's no room at the inn for the bed and bored.

Not for nothing is his favorite rendezvous spot Viagra Falls.

All this fun falls at the frisky feet of Burstein, whose two-part harmony -- he portrays actor Roman Bartelli who plays Aldolpho in the mythical musical-within-a-musical that is "The Drowsy Chaperone" -- accompanies a Tony Award nomination for one of the most clever, kinetic comical portrayals on stage in the past two decades.

Indeed, quickly, Broadway Danny rose to the top of the must-see tee-hee list of great scene-stealers. But let's back up a bit; it's the back story Burstein's created for his characters that is uncannily as comical as the humor that hijacks the Marquis Theatre crowds night after night.

Born to a Costa Rican Catholic mom and a Jewish dad from that other coast -- Brooklyn -- Burstein borrowed from his own half and half heritage to make Bartelli wholly unique.

Olá and oy vay -- perfect together?

"Whenever I do a back story for a character," muses Burstein of Bartelli, "I try to find things that are juicy and make me laugh."

Or is that ... Jewsy?

"I came up with the story that he was a little Jewish boy -- Roman Hershkovitz -- who loved singing Italian arias, but Jewish audiences found that disturbing. So, his parents -- who were big names in the Yiddish theater -- thought he'd have a better chance if they changed his name to Bartelli, and he made it big as a kid during vaudeville singing opera."

Vesta La Jew-ba?

"Well," kids Burstein, "it could happen."

What happens on stage at the Marquis is more soap opera-ish than Puccini pure. The conceit of the comical musical is a Rube Goldberg-esque burlesque of theater history: The Man in the Chair -- portrayed by Bob Martin (who co-wrote the Tony Award-winning book) as a fey fan of fancily funny old-time shows -- invites the audience into his hi-fi fantasy, in which he slips on a vinyl recording of "The Drowsy Chaperone," a '20s musical, and slip-slides into the imagination as "Chaperone" explodes ecstatically before audience and actors.

Crank up the volume on memories: Is it any wonder "The Drowsy Chaperone" was the season's sleeper hit and took home five Tony Awards this past season, or that the lithe libidinous Lothario of Burstein's creation was Tony nominated?

And "what" is all part of the appeal of Burstein's bifurcated bonanza of a role. No, that's not a question; it's a statement of the actor's accomplishment. Turning the word "W-h-a-at?" into a sizzling multi-syllabic -- and quixotic -- question of astonishment, Burstein's Aldolpho is the answer to the question of "Who steals the show?"

"W-h-a-at was that?" giggle dazzled audiences of the gigolo whose boom baritone travels octaves from subway to supershuttle in what is truly a super performance.

If Aldolpho turns romance into an overheated Rorshach test, he is patterned after a narcissist with nary a clue.

"The irony, of course," says Burstein, "is that Aldolpho thinks of himself as the world's greatest lover, but he's awful."

Awfully funny that portrayal, but then "Chaperone" is alone on Broadway these days as quietly quirky -- albeit not exactly helped by a Valium-type title that belies the blare of belly laughs from a book purposely indexed to infectious inanity.

And the Lisa Lambert/Greg Morrison mischievous music and lyrics ... for the record, there are two recordings: The original cast CD and a recently released separate special collectors' edition of the show-within-the-show, which evinces a vinyl validation of just how popular "Chaperone" and its accompanying inner-story have become.

Old-style vinyl records -- oddities in today's iPod world -- are certainly music to Burstein's ears, who grew up listening to "Finian's Rainbow" and a whole spectrum of musicals. "My parents had so many that I used to wear them out."

He wore his talents well, so much so that even as a theater student, there was no doubt that this Queens College kid could be a king of musical comedy.

Burstein waxes lyrical to this day over those profs who pushed him to professional heights, such as " my mentor" Ed Greenberg, a prominent producer who helped Burstein earn his Equity card at an age when other teens were at that awkward -- not professional -- stage of their lives.

Master of his domain -- the stage -- was his as Burstein earned an MFA from the University of California before discovering "Midnight at Moscow" a must, studying with the Moscow Art Theater 18 summers ago.

"I've also done a lot of voiceover" and, over the years, movies, too. (Train your eyes on him as Dr. Spikowsky in "Transamerica"; this year he's traveling to the screen in "The Tourist.")

It's been a career of great pieces and Harmony; Burstein and the woman who would be his future wife, the incandescent Broadway star Rebecca Luker, met while starring in a California workshop production of "Harmony." A pet project of composer Barry Manilow, the show dealt with Germany's Comedians Harmonists, an incredibly popular 1920s a cappella group who proved no hit with Hitler when he discovered that some of the group's members were Jewish.

The show, with a different post-workshop cast, collapsed before its pre-Broadway tryout at Philadelphia's Forrest Theatre four years ago. But even as a member of the earlier workshop, Burstein regrets the show never made it to a big Broadway house: "You can't be Jewish without having the Holocaust mean something special to you and having an impact on your life."

And it certainly did for Burstein, who grew up watching "Shoah" with his parents "and learning and growing from it," says the actor who portrayed the rabbi in the "Harmony" workshop.

There's never been a lack of work for Burstein, who's built a busy career, with extensive credits on Broadway ("A Class Act," "Titanic," "Company") and off. Off and running with the dream job of Aldolpho now, Burstein has burnt forever an image in the Broadway collective memory of a character whose mirror image is a ... mirror.

But just w-h-a-at will Roman Bartelli (nee Hershkovitz) do when "The Drowsy Chaperone" eventually hits the Big Sleep?

"Why, he'll tour the regions of France with a Yiddish show, of course," asserts the actor with the acumen that comes from knowing his "Drowsy" aleph male misfit won't just be shluffen along.

And what will be the title of Aldolpho's, no doubt, one-man show? Without skipping a beat, Burstein burnishes Bartelli's image tellingly: "It'll be called, 'It's Me! Me! Me!' " 

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