The Drowsy Chaperone

Review by Adam Blair

Music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
With Danny Burstein, Georgia Engel, Sutton Foster, Troy Britton Johnson, Eddie Korbich, Garth Kravits, Jason Kravits, Beth Leavel, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Bob Martin, Noble Shropshire, Jennifer Smith, Lenny Wolpe
At the Marquis Theatre, New York City

One of the frothiest, silliest theater forms ever — 1920s musical comedy — is the extra-thick icing on a cake that’s lightly dusted with fear, loneliness and embarrassing obsessions in The Drowsy Chaperone, which took home several Tony Awards this year. But instead of spoiling the taste, the slightly dark undertone makes the whole thing more palatable. In a way, it gives the audience permission to enjoy the cardboard characters, dated dialogue and hackneyed plot conventions that were rarely anything more than the flimsy framework for songs, dances, clowning and cavorting.

The clever book for Chaperone uses the framing device of “Man in Chair” (we never learn his name), played by book co-author Bob Martin, shyly sharing his obsession and one true passion with us, the audience. He plays the record of the “forgotten” 1928 musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and his depressing, bars-on-the-windows apartment is transformed into the entrance hall, garden or bedrooms of a dowager’s mansion, as well as its sunstruck poolside and moonstruck balconies.

Characters who are little more than caricatures but are lively company nonetheless stream in from the upstage center refrigerator; are discovered lounging when the stage left Murphy bed is lowered; or simply drop from the flies in a convenient biplane. Leading lady Sutton Foster seems to particularly enjoy rising from below the stage floor and sinking below it via an elevator up center, the better to whet our appetite for her carefully calculated encores (complete with costume changes, of course).

Well, you either like the conventions of old-time musical comedy or you don’t. I came to the Marquis Theatre predisposed to liking them, and it’s possible Chaperone may create a few converts. Really, anyone who has been embarrassed by an unduly strong interest in anything — obscure sports, Civil War re-enactments, the history of the bassoon — should be able to identify with Man in Chair, who just wants the perfect escape from too-real life that a few hours with a favorite recording can provide.

In fact, the key moment of Chaperone for me was not the songs, dances, nor even the convenient deus ex machina that wrapped up “Chaperone’s” nearly nonexistent plot. It was the moment when Man in Chair could no longer keep the real world — in the person of his building super — outside his apartment/private world. “Do you like musicals?” the super asks. “No,” says Man, almost as a reflex. But the super likes musicals. He especially liked the helicopter that landed on the stage in Miss Saigon. Both the closeness and the distance between today and 1928, in life and in the theater, are captured in that little exchange.

Chaperone benefits greatly from the strength of this production, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, who performed the latter duties for Monty Python’s Spamalot. The book, by Martin and Don McKellar, allows Martin’s character to explain and comment on the conventions of musical comedy — conventions that, in their day, were as unthinkingly accepted by audiences as a sitcom’s laugh track or the network logo in the corner of the TV screen — all just part of the show. When Man in Chair says that a lame comedy scene is being performed solely to allow time for a scene change, or asks us to ignore ridiculous lyrics but listen to the lovely music of a lament, we’re peeking behind the curtain in the way that “Mystery Science Theater 3000” taught millions of people how to read a film, without the bother and expense of attending a film class.

If the songs by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison aren’t all particularly memorable they are at least tuneful, alluding both to the era’s pantheon of composers (Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern—sigh) as well as to the functions each song fulfills. In today’s better-constructed musicals, songs are about what the characters want or need. In a 1920s musical, it’s about what the show needed at that particular moment: a “Negro” number leading to a tap duo routine for Troy Britton Johnson and Eddie Korbich (“Cold Feets”); a number to demonstrate the star’s specialties, from acrobatics to ventriloquism (Sutton Foster singing “Show Off,”); a comedic number for an unthreatening pair of gangsters that becomes a dance number for the entire cast (“Toledo Surprise”); an inspirational march from the title character, played with just the right touches of scene-stealing self-importance by Beth Leavel (“As We Stumble Along”). You get the idea.

Nicholaw has assembled a uniformly strong cast for Chaperone. In addition to those mentioned above, Georgia Engel (of TV’s “Mary Tyler Moore” show and more recently “Everybody Loves Raymond”) plays an adorable ditz, but the canny actress knows exactly what she’s doing every second. Danny Burstein as Aldolpho, a dim-witted Latin lover with a Pepé Le Pew silver streak in his hair, is hilariously broad and just plain hilarious. Jennifer Smith as a dizzy blonde showgirl, Lenny Wolpe as a Broadway producer, Jason Kravits and Garth Kravits as the aforementioned gangsters, Noble Shropshire as the butler Underling (love that name!) and Kecia Lewis-Evans as the biplane’s pilot embody their stereotypical roles as if they’d never heard of Stanislavsky or the Actor’s Studio. Back then, musicals were musicals and serious theater was serious theater, and rarely did the twain ever meet. We’ve come a long way — maybe. For a fond look back at what we’ve gained and lost, visit The Drowsy Chaperone.

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