Has a musical ever more adeptly captured the exuberant devotion that we "show freaks" have for certain theater pieces as The Drowsy Chaperone does? This musical, currently playing at the Aronoff Center, is a quirky, good-natured romp that skillfully manages to send up musicals of a long-ago era while also demonstrating with much hilarity the obsessive nature of many shows fans for the musicals we most adore. With a fine cast, solid writing and first-rate design, this show is sure to entertain and delight the vast majority of theatergoers.
With The Drowsy Chaperone, an audience really gets two separate shows. Before the lights even come up, the unnamed Man In Chair welcomes the audience into his world. A current day recluse, Man in Chair asks if he can share his favorite musical with the audience, the frivolous (and fictional) 1928 tuner also named The Drowsy Chaperone. As he plays the record - yes, record - the show-within-the show comes alive, turning his bleak one-room flat into the set of a big, brassy old-fashioned spectacle. The 1928 show that unfolds is a purposely predictable and slight tale of the chaos that ensues on the planned wedding day of Broadway starlet Janet Van De Graaff and handsome tycoon Robert Martin.
The book for the show is by Don McKellar and Bob Martin, who originated the role of Man in Chair. The internal musical is humorous due to the exaggerated ridiculousness of the way the stereotypical characters, storylines and staging are presented. However, what garnered a 2006 Best Book of a Musical Tony Award is the material for Man in Chair. His wry narration (including laugh-out-loud stories of behind the scene gossip and "where are they now" updates), detailed show commentary (advising the audience to ignore the terrible lyrics in one song) and droll personal anecdotes are practically perfect in form and provide a splendid framework for the inner show. The Man in Chair comes across as an everyday sad sack, but one with a genuine honesty to which most everyone can relate. And the show wisely doesn't try to stretch this concept too far (it comes in under two hours in length, with no intermission). Some criticism has been made about the legitimacy of there being a cast recording of a show from this era, but minor quibbles like these aside, the show just works.
The score by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison also garnered a 2006 Tony Award. The pair smartly parodied the musical styles of 1920s shows rather than trying to recreate them. There are toe-tapping dance numbers ("Cold Feet," "Toledo Surprise"), amiable charm songs ("Love Is Always Lovely In the End") and rousing showstoppers ("Show Off," "I Do, I Do In The Sky"). Pleasant melodies and witty lyrics (never better than the self-proclaimed anthem to the glory of alcoholism – "As We Stumble Along") make this a solid and winning score, though not one likely to compare overly favorable to other recent Tony winners (and a lot of losers to boot). In the end, however, the songs are exactly what they need to be for the show, which is really all anyone can ask for, and Lambert and Morrison deliver.
Although no one in the tour can quite match the near perfection of the original Broadway cast, this group of performers is very talented and solid in their performances. Jonathan Crombie has the most difficult position taking on the Man in Chair role that Bob Martin played to much acclaim on Broadway. However, this leading role is in good hands with Mr. Crombie. His Man in Chair is a lovable, charming and appealing one, mixed in with just the right level of neurosis that makes the character interesting. Andrea Chamberlain is a great singer and possesses professional timing and stage presence. But, though she does extremely well with "Show Off," her Janet lacks the necessary sweetness and sexual energy to make the portrayal ideal. Georgia Engel recreates her Broadway role as hostess Mrs. Tottendale with polish and panache. Nancy Opel puts her gloriously big voice and personality to great use as the title character. Mark Ledbetter is wonderful as Robert Martin and comes closest to meeting or surpassing his original Broadway counterpart. The rest of the cast does a great job executing this active show that's really an ensemble piece overall.
Director/Choreographer Casey Nicholaw's work is underrated for this show. His active and unique dances are perfectly suited to the material and period, and his direction is full of intricate details that really enhance the material. Unlike so many other recent self-aware musicals, the commentary on the state of theater and the devotion that is paid to this art form comes across as more heartfelt and less mean spirited. Mr. Nicholaw handles the back and forth flow between the two shows being presented with great skill, and the ingenious theatrics (e.g. "Message From A Nightingale") presented are a hoot. Robert Billig capably leads a small pit orchestra.
David Gallo's clever set design is inspired in transforming the stage into the 1928 show while never leaving the general constraints of the current day studio apartment. The costumes by Gregg Barnes are exquisitely rendered with over-the-top style, and the lighting by Ken Billington and Brian Monahan is inventive.
The Drowsy Chaperone doesn't require any heavy thinking, but is likely to cause laughs and smiles. The musical is a valentine for anyone who has every obsessed over a show, likely to the scorn of our non-theater loving friends. Despite the off-putting title, the show is a delightful escape from the real world for us, just as it is for the Man in Chair. The tour boasts solid performances and all of the other aspects that made this piece a hit in New York, where it still is running today.
The Drowsy Chaperone continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through December 16, 2007. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.