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The Drowsy Chaperone

"The Drowsy Chaperone," an homage to the melodic, slapsticky musicals of the 1920s, emits enough intoxicating charm for just about anyone to get drunk on. This delectable show operates on two planes, as a guided tour of a make-believe musical from the era of pure escapist entertainment and as a surprisingly heartfelt tribute to all who find solace in a favorite show when life's troubles are taking their toll.

“The Drowsy Chaperone,” an homage to the melodic, slapsticky musicals of the 1920s, emits enough intoxicating charm for just about anyone to get drunk on.

Playing at the Ahmanson on its way to New York, this delectable show operates on two planes, as a guided tour of a make-believe musical from the era of pure escapist entertainment — when the gowns were always gorgeous and the plots paper-thin — and as a surprisingly heartfelt tribute to all who find solace in a favorite show when life’s troubles are taking their toll. Retro yet original, genuinely funny, performed with near-perfect precision by a grand ensemble, this is a show lover’s show, and plenty of its patrons should find it positively inebriating.

The most essential element in this show’s success is not the glitz and the glamour but the guide. Bob Martin, who also co-wrote the book with Don McKellar, plays the sad-sack narrator, and it really is a breakout role. He’s a fussy man: One look at his studio apartment and his heavy cardigan and it’s clear this guy is not fond of change.

We’ll learn plenty more about him as the show goes on, but all we really need to know is that, when afflicted with a “nonspecific sadness,” he heads for his record collection (“Yes, records,” he pointedly tells us). On this day, he selects his very favorite: Gable & Stein’s “The Drowsy Chaperone.”

Before long, the not-quite-classic show is coming to life in his studio apartment. Our nameless guide — he’s just the Man in Chair — introduces us to the characters, archetypes all, in this story of “mix-ups, mayhem and a gay wedding.” (“Back then,” he assures us, “it just meant fun.”)

There’s Janet (Sutton Foster), the bride-to-be who plans to leave her flourishing stage career behind; the oh-so-dashing groom, Robert (Troy Britton Johnson); put-upon wedding planner George (Eddie Korbich); and the title character, Janet’s chaperone (Beth Leavel), played, as our guide gleefully informs us with his irresistible passion, by superstar diva Beatrice Stockwell, “a full 15 years before she became Dame Beatrice Stockwell.”

Everyone else is there to get in the way of the wedding. There’s the producer Feldzieg (Lenny Wolpe), who desperately needs to stop the nuptials in order to save his show; his not-so-talented girlfriend, Kitty (Jennifer Smith), who wants the lead part for herself; and the gangsters (Jason Kravits and Garth Kravits), who do double duty as pastry chefs when they’re not threatening the producer with bodily harm.

Then there are those who are there to … well, they’ll find something to do. They include Aldolpho (Danny Burstein), the Latin lover extraordinaire; the forgetful Mrs. Tottendale (Georgia Engel) and her sidekick Underling (Edward Hibbert); and, just to top it off, there’s Trix, the Aviatrix (Kecia Lewis-Evans).

Whew. That’s a lot of people. This is an elaborate show, and first-time director Casey Nicholaw (who choreographed “Monty Python’s Spamalot”) manages to keep it all crystal clear and humming along.

He’s helped enormously by David Gallo’s ever-inventive set design, which transforms the dreary apartment into a Cole Porter-like party. There’s not one but two prosceniums; lounging characters emerge from the Murphy bed; the refrigerator opens onto a field; and on and on. It’s all one big paean to theatrical imagination.

Throughout, we never forget all this is emanating from the mind of our narrator, who frequently interrupts the story to inject commentary, both informative (we’ll find out which actor was tragically devoured by his own pets) and judgmental (“Try to ignore the lyrics,” he helpfully tells us at one point).

This show originated in Toronto, where all of its creators are based. It first played the Fringe Festival there in 1999 and has since been produced at a larger venue. This is its U.S. debut, and its commercial appeal is unquestionable. It’s certainly an awful lot tighter and polished than “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” another example of a 1920s tribute, was in its Southern California tryout. And overall, “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a more satisfying show than “Millie,” equally mood-lifting but less problematic.

There are, as always, limitations. The one of most concern is the score, from Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. Not that it’s bad; it’s actually very good. It just never quite soars. After all, the musicals that inspired this piece — from the likes of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and others — produced classic, popular tunes. There’s just nothing here quite on that level.

There are great numbers — the tap-dancing “Cold Feets,” Foster’s showstopper “Show Off,” Drowsy’s anthem “As We Stumble Along.” But this is the one element that could use a touch less self-consciousness. We’re never quite given the chance to get lost in a song, in part because we’re watching the narrator get lost in it, or we’re pulled out of any musical reverie with another good gag.

But the gags work really well. And the cast is eminently game, each performance topping the next. If one trumps all others for its sheer over-the-top deliciousness, it’s Burstein as Aldolpho.

And, of course, “every-fan” Martin, who’s so easy to identify with, so infectiously entertained by it all, so sad and yet so happy, that it’s almost worth getting into a bad mood before coming to “The Drowsy Chaperone” just so he can help cure it.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Ahmanson Theater; 1,600 seats; $90 top

  • Production: A Center Theater Group presentation of a musical in one act, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw.
  • Crew: Set, David Gallo; costumes, Gregg Barnes; lighting, Ken Billington, Brian Monahan; sound, Acme Sound Partners; orchestrations, Larry Blank; dance and incidental music arrangements, Glen Kelly; music direction and vocal arrangements, Phil Reno; production stage manager, Karen Moore. Opened, reviewed Nov. 18, 2005; runs through Dec. 24. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.
  • Cast: Man in Chair - Bob Martin Mrs. Tottendale - Georgia Engel Underling - Edward Hibbert Robert - Troy Britton Johnson George - Eddie Korbich Feldzieg - Lenny Wolpe Kitty - Jennifer Smith Gangster #1 - Jason Kravits Gangster #2 - Garth Kravits Aldolpho - Danny Burstein Janet - Sutton Foster Drowsy - Beth Leavel Trix - Kecia Lewis-Evans <b>With:</b> Linda Griffin, Angela Pupello, Joey Sorge, Patrick Wetzel, Keith A. Bearden, Suzanne Carlton