The little show that could (and did), “The Drowsy Chaperone” is nothing if not knowing. The secret behind the success of Casey Nicholaw’s exquisitely honed hymn to the forgotten musicals of yesteryear is that its authors knew exactly what they were doing when they took the broad out of Broadway. That gamble having paid off handsomely, it’s no surprise that it has now, as it were, pitched camp in the West End. What’s questionable is whether or not London auds will take to it in similar numbers.
Script wise, little has changed. Naturally enough, the show now features a running gag about its new berth, the Novello Theater, and before playing us the LP of “The Drowsy Chaperone” the Man in the Chair refers to a recording of “Oliver!” and his craving for a bit of the young Jack Wild. (Although, to be as frighteningly picky as the character, Wild was only on the original movie cast recording.)
He does, however, crack a joke about the lack of laughter on the supposed London “Chaperone” recording. Looking pointedly into the auditorium, he observes that this was “typical of American hits transplanted to the West End.” The opening-night audience disproved that theory but then, as expected, the theater was jammed with industry figures gleefully lapping up every one of the show’s in-jokes.
As before, most of those are in the excitable but expert hands of Bob Martin, co-author of the book and the only holdover from the New York cast. He’s surrounded by a well chosen London team, with the stand-out of Summer Strallen as Janet Van De Graaff , who generates a storm of applause after knocking out “Show Off” with eye-widening aplomb.
The only trouble for musical theater enthusiasts is that leggy Strallen shot to prominence last year as a joyous Maisie in Sandy Wilson’s equally affectionate ’20s pastiche, “The Boy Friend.” Martin and Don McKellar’s book may be a treasure trove of playful references to musical comedy queenery, but there’s no getting around the fact that Wilson’s evergreen score knocks spots off this one.
The major shift for London is the handling of the title role. Casting the West End’s leading belter Elaine Paige in this delightfully featherweight confection is like hiring Babe Ruth to play ping-pong.
Paige is certainly funny slugging out gags at her own expense on grounds of her height (or lack thereof) and her diva-behavior . But compared with the role’s creator Beth Leavel — whose supremely sophisticated, Tony-winning performance eked comedy out of everything from pregnant pauses to exquisitely choreographed curling of her fingertips — Paige renders the role not so much drowsy as blowsy.
She is so busy sending herself up, she barely bothers with the character’s drunkenness. When Janet asks her for “advice that for once is coherent” the line goes for nothing. Her one-note self-deprecation is also likely to prove tiresome with non-musical theater aficionados. They, however, are unlikely to find themselves at so self-reflexive a show in the first place.
That, in turn, begs the question as to whether or not the show can survive in the currently chilly West End. Before opening (and the following night), it has been available on the half-price TKTS booth.
Its largely very strong overnight U.K. reviews are likely to give the box office a much-needed boost. Coupled with a major advertising spend to get the reviews out, the tuner might just survive the transatlantic crossing. Whether such a musical in-joke will translate into a seriously profitable long run remains to be seen.