A correction was made to this review on May 4, 2006
In the opening moments of the irresistible new musical “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a voice from the darkened stage breaks the silence, reflecting on the pre-curtain prayers of the perennially disappointed theatergoer. Wistfully recalling a time when first-nighters tingled with anticipation of what the Gershwins or Cole Porter had in store for them, the unseen speaker then laments that now, it’s “Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?” For many in the press-night crowd, the memory was all too vivid of groaning, snoring and shifting in their seats through “Lestat” a few days earlier, so the line could hardly have been better timed.
A witty valentine from musical theater lovers to the frothy tuners of the 1920s, this refreshing cocktail of a show gets the audience on its side in the opening minutes and keeps them there for the duration. Sure, the score, by Second City alumni Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, is pastiche, and purists can quibble about its period authenticity. But like “The Producers,” this is superior, smartly crafted pastiche and no less entertaining for being so.
What’s more remarkable, the show’s sufficiently steeped in musical theater lore to tickle aficionados while its charm and laughs never risk shutting out broader auds. Wink-nudge in-jokes are rationed to avoid a condescending air of contemporary superiority. The Canadian creative team (Bob Martin and Don McKellar wrote the book) infuses its take on the genre with irony, but the genuine affection behind their simultaneous celebration of it is never in doubt.
Adding directing duties to choreography after shepherding the dancing knights of “Spamalot,” Casey Nicholaw confidently marshals a large cast in a show whose metatheatrical action combines separate and intertwined playing fields, recalling “The Boyfriend.” Helping maintain the buoyancy are the inventive designs of David Gallo (sets) and Gregg Barnes (costumes).
The tour guide for the show’s nostalgic dip into the past is an unprepossessing theater obsessive in a shapeless cardigan, played by co-writer Martin and named only Man in Chair. In what is clearly one of many “blue” days, he resorts to his record collection — “Yes, records” — for comfort, selecting the original cast, two-disc recording of forgotten musical comedy “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
As soon as needle hits vinyl, the flat light in the Man’s characterless apartment takes on a magical glow (the work of lighting designers Ken Billington and Brian Monahan), the bars disappear from the windows, and the room is suddenly populated by figures from the Prohibition-era musical.
In the make-believe, champagne-and-caviar world, glamorous showgirl Janet Van De Graaff (Sutton Foster) is on the verge of abandoning her career to marry dashing Robert Martin (Troy Britton Johnson). Also on hand are the absent-minded lady of the house, Mrs. Tottendale (Georgia Engel); her patient butler (Edward Hibbert); and the best man (Eddie Korbich).
Then there’s a theater producer (Lenny Wolpe) desperate to keep Janet in his show; his ditzy, untalented girlfriend (Jennifer Smith), who has her eye on the starring role; and two gangsters (Jason and Garth Kravits), posing as pastry chefs. Finally, there’s the bride’s booze-swilling chaperone (Beth Leavel), a clumsy lothario (Danny Burstein) and, somewhat arbitrarily, a fly-by aviatrix (Kecia Lewis-Evans). “What we now call a lesbian,” explains Martin of the latter.
With an indulgent nod from our guide to the flimsiness of the central conflict, we learn the chief complication is the challenge of keeping bride and groom apart on the wedding day. The wafer-thinness of the droll plot is an essential element of the comedy: There’s a reason this show is a forgotten one, after all. Martin’s character makes no claims for classic status but regards it as something of a guilty pleasure, colored by personal associations.
So it fits also that the tunes are more serviceable than inspired. Even so, Lambert and Morrison have written some sparkling comic numbers, notably Janet’s “Show Off,” in which Foster (back in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” flapper mode and more gainfully employed here than in the lumpy “Little Women”) feigns fatigue from the spotlight, only to dazzle with numerous costume and key changes, cartwheels and splits, plate-spinning, snake-charming, target-shooting and Houdini feats.
Other high points include Johnson and Korbich’s tap-happy “Cold Feets”; Leavel’s inappropriate, hilariously self-aggrandizing inspirational anthem “As We Stumble Along”; and Engel and Hibbert’s sweet soft-shoe duet “Love Is Always Lovely in the End.” This last prompts Man in Chair, after a drink, to wonder with a touch of irritation, “Don’t you think that someone must have been aware of the awkward sexual connotation of that title?”
His commentary, both wry and enthusiastic, enlivens the songs and the amusingly belabored book scenes from the show within the show. He interjects with passionate endorsements, criticisms and helpful suggestions to the aud (“Now, when you’re listening to this, try to ignore the lyrics”), also providing background on the Broadway stars playing the tuner’s two-dimensional characters — Jane Roberts as Janet was known as the Oops Girl; the actor playing Latin lover Aldolpho drank himself to death and was partially devoured by his poodles.
Martin appears to have nestled deeper into the role since the Los Angeles run last winter; while the entire ensemble is terrific in parts that demand self-awareness and a generous slice of ham, it’s his nuanced characterization that gives the show its considerable heart.
As he becomes increasingly transported by the musical, his rapt attention from the sidelines in his armchair gives way to full choreographic participation, while the period artifice of Gallo’s sets gradually takes over from lackluster reality. One of the most winning aspects of Martin and McKellar’s book is the economy and humor with which it doles out personal information about Man in Chair — his abortive attempt at heterosexual marriage, ugly divorce, his dietary disorders, depression and solitude.
Via its endearing onstage host, “The Drowsy Chaperone” extends a warm embrace to every show queen and misfit theater geek who ever escaped a dreary day-to-day existence by sticking a cast recording on a turntable and disappearing into the cocooning fantasy world of a musical.