"That's what this show is - fun!" So says the otherwise nameless Man in Chair played by Bob Martin in the frothy meta-musical The Drowsy Chaperone. The agoraphobic musical maven is talking about his favorite 1920's show - a fictional concoction of dithering misunderstandings and inappropriate production numbers that is also called The Drowsy Chaperone. But he could be referring to its 21st-century namesake, since everyone in the cast appears to be having a ball, and none more so than Danny Burstein.
Burstein plays the buffoonish Latin lover Aldolpho in the show's musical-within-a-musical, and does so with the hammy relish of Cesar Romero, Gilbert Roland and Ricardo Montalban combined. His outlandish brio won him a 2006 Tony Award nomination, the veteran actor's first such honor.
The offstage Burstein, friendly and unassuming, couldn't be more different from Aldolpho, who is a preening peacock from his two-and-a-half-inch Cuban heels to his six-inch, skunk-striped Pepé Le Pew pompadour. However, the actor did actually have something in his past from which to draw his performance. "I'm half Spanish. My mom is from Costa Rica and my dad is a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx. I took a little from my mom's side of the family and played with it."
Like all the other leading players in The Drowsy Chaperone (save Martin's character, who guides the audience through a playing of the show's original cast recording), Burstein leads a kind of double life onstage. He plays the part of Aldolpho in the 1928 titular creation by the imagined composing team of Jule Gable and Sidney Stein. But the actor behind Aldolpho is one Roman Bartelli, memorably described by the Man in Chair as a "former silent film star and world-class alcoholic." Each performer in Chaperone was allowed to create a made-up backstory for his or her one-time Broadway great. "We'd do an improv game in rehearsals called 'The Hot Seat.' People would pepper you with questions. You were in the hot seat as your character. It was fun and terrifying at the same time." In the show, we learn from the Man in Chair that the unfortunate Bartelli eventually died of drink in his chateau in Nice and - yikes! - was partly devoured by his pet poodles before his body was found. But Burstein can tell you even more. For instance: Roman's man-eating poodles were named Lucky and Choo-choo. Also, Bartelli was born Roman Hershkovitz, but his parents, who were in the Yiddish Theatre, rechristened him after he gained childhood fame in vaudeville singing opera arias. "Audiences found it disturbing that a little Jewish boy was singing opera." Finally, Bartelli was forced out of Hollywood after conducting an illicit affair with a very young Eddie Bracken. "Charges were never brought," Burstein says with a smile.
Such copious trivia notwithstanding, the heart of Burstein's performance of comic bravura may lie in a single word: what. The exceptionally dense Casanova utters this exclamation several times in the show when confronted with bits of obvious information. As delivered by Burstein, it is a comic symphony in one syllable. His "Whaaaa-ut!" begins in the basement and shoots up an octave while the actor's body rises from a crouch to a hands-up pose vaguely resembling Lumiere in Beauty and the Beast.
The actor worked hard to find the right execution for the word, knowing that it was probably Bartelli's signature bit. "My kids must have thought I was crazy, going around the apartment all the time going 'What?' 'Whaaat?' 'Whaaa-ut?'" Eventually, he hit paydirt. "I knew I was on to something when colleagues started coming up to me and mimicking it. Now strangers do it. The other day a woman came up to me on the subway and said, 'Whaaaa-ut?'" Now that's a measure of celebrity that Bartelli himself would understand.