Returning to the Ahmanson, the venue whence it departed for its Broadway odyssey (20 months, 674 perfs, five Tonys), “The Drowsy Chaperone” has lost none of its joie de vivre. The crummy urban apartment of the woeful but irrepressibly optimistic Man in Chair (Jonathan Crombie) continues to metamorphose into a Broadway tuner wonderland with energy and flair. If the test of a tour is freshness vs. flatness, this one feels newly minted; as with a favorite old record, one grins from ear to ear with a desire to experience it again. Immediately.
If “Chaperone” merely re-created an imagined 1920s multiple-wedding tuner, its thin plot and serviceable score would waft away out of inconsequence. Show doesn’t even sound like the ’20s, which is no complaint: Who wants to linger long in the piano-saxophone-trumpet-drums soundscape of “The Boy Friend”?
But the Man in Chair makes the difference, genially annotating the acted-out album with commentary and dish, not to mention connections to his own bittersweet life in which show tunes generally. and these in particular, have been medicinal.
With David Gallo’s lavish set pieces magically appearing around him, show is truly the product of the Man’s own yearnings. It’s he who raises the faux-’20s material to new levels of resonance, he who serves as auteur of Ken Billington and Brian Monahan’s elaborate light cues and Larry Blank’s riveting orchestrations.
Crombie is sweet where original Man — and co-librettist — Bob Martin was tart, lending extra appeal to his invitation to shut out the real world and share in his appreciation of a favorite album.
Agelessly winsome Georgia Engel is the sole veteran of the first company, the others chomping down on their roles with originators’ relish.
Standouts include Fran Jaye, employing most of her multi-octave range in the pivotal eleventh-hour role of Trix the Aviatrix (“what we now call a lesbian,” the Man interjects). As gangsters impersonating pastry chefs, diminutive Paul and Peter Riopelle scamper like “Ratatouille” extras to menace jovially imposing theatrical impresario Cliff Bemis (if you ever wondered what Mike Ditka would look like in a musical comedy, now you’ll know).
The young lovers, Janet Vandergraff (Andrea Chamberlain) and Robert Martin (Mark Ledbetter), stake a serious claim to Best in Show. Through her self-aggrandizing “Show Off” showstopper, Chamberlain’s sly smile and distance pull in the audience rather than shove her (considerable) stuff in our faces. Goofy in the way of ingenue grooms, Ledbetter actually revels in his goofiness to locate laughs where few could have known they were lurking. He and best man Richard Vida carry out helmer Casey Nicholaw’s tap choreography in “Cold Feets” with insouciance worthy of Kelly and O’Connor.
Gregg Barnes’ impossibly lavish costumes amount to a master class in satirical couture, starting with Chaperone Nancy Opel, who seems to have been poured into Erte-style gowns with the aid of a layer of Crisco and her limbs bent into high fashion poses. Droll thesp equals Beth Leavel’s original Tony-winning turn and that — as inebriated chaperones are wont to say — ain’t easy, bub.
On opening night, ensemble numbers were marked by a muddle of undifferentiated lyrics. Since individual singers rang out with clarity, it seems big tuners continue to challenge, not to say befuddle, the Ahmanson sound department.