The Drowsy Chaperone Music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. Book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar. By Special Arrangement with Paul Mack. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Scenic design by David Gallo. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Ken Billington, Brian Monahan. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Makeup design by Justen M. Brosnan. Orchestrations by Larry Blank. Cast: Danny Burstein, Georgia Engel, Sutton Foster, Edward Hibbert, Troy Britton Johnson, Eddie Korbich, Garth Kravits, Jason Kravits, Beth Leavel, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Bob Martin, Jennifer Smith, Lenny Wolpe, and Andrea Chamerlain, Jay Douglas, Stacia Fernandez, Linda Griffin, Angela Pupello, Kilty Reidy, Joey Sorge, Patrick Wetzel.
The look of exultation is unmistakable, and familiar to every musical theatre lover who's ever been transported by one of his or her favorite numbers. It washes across the face of our guide through the new musical The Drowsy Chaperone with all the regularity of the tides, the smile from deep within that suggests a feeling almost like being in love.
Okay, forget almost. It is love for the enigmatically named "Man in Chair," who's currently reigning over the Marquis like King Arthur once did over Camelot. And as played by Bob Martin, he's the exuberant embodiment of every enthusiast whose knowledge of his particular subject is both heaven and hell. That's a feeling to which those attending The Drowsy Chaperone will be able to relate all too well.
For while the show is elevated by Martin's chicly cheeky performance, this is perhaps the hardest musical to love that's ever been written specifically for musical lovers. It's easy to write off drivel like the Off-Broadway abomination The Musical of Musicals: The Musical!, which used musical theatre love as a sordid means to questionable comic ends. But when something courts devotees with as much honest gusto as does The Drowsy Chaperone, attention must be paid. Sadly, except when Martin is speaking - and too often when he is - the more attention you pay, the less readily that attention pays off.
At least in the hands of Martin, a veteran of Second City Toronto, "Man in Chair" is a charming, charitably cheery emcee. Not that most musical theatre lovers will need convincing: "Man in Chair" is the quintessential lovable show queen, one of that stalwart species common in New York, but with isolated populations the world over. Spanning all genders and sexual orientations, show queens are identified by their passion for theatre, especially musical theatre, and the cast recordings that have preserved those shows ever since... well, we'll get to that shortly.
This one wiles away the hours in his apartment, accompanied only by his trusty hi-fi (no CD players here, thank you) and a stack of LPs from his favorite shows. (Yes, just one stack. This is where suspension of disbelief begins.) One of his most cherished is a Gable & Stein guilty pleasure called The Drowsy Chaperone, some piffle from the first half of the 20th century combining vaudeville irreverence with Aarons-Freedley frivolity into a cavalcade of paper-thin hilarity.
As "Man in Chair" plays the record, the colorful, quirky show materializes within the drab greys of his apartment, transporting him - and us - into the show itself. In the story, a delectable stage starlet, Janet Van De Graaf (Sutton Foster), is marrying out of show business when she says "I do" to dandy Robert Martin (Troy Britton Johnson). Her producer, Mr. Feldzieg (Lenny Wolpe), has hired gangsters to make sure she doesn't tie the knot, and an inebriation-inclined watchdog (the desert-dry Beth Leavel, in a title role sauced from the get-go) is on hand to ensure that Janet doesn't ruin her wedding day by seeing her fiancée until the ceremony.
Through it all, "Man in Chair" provides wry background information about the show and its players, their personal histories before and since they appeared in The Drowsy Chaperone. He becomes in these snatches of dialogue, far and away the show's finest, the true theatrical connoisseur, contextualizing for us this show that allows him to escape his lonely, lovelorn world and return to the glorious Broadway... of 1928.
It's here that the show's fragile house of window cards - built by librettists Martin and Don McKellar, composer-lyricists Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw - tumbles. While recordings of individual songs from musicals date back to the turn of the century, full original cast recordings with complete orchestrations weren't commonplace until Oklahoma!'s landmark album in 1943; 1928 is unquestionably too early. I'd love to be able to load my CD player with OCRs of 1928's Billie, Hold Everything, and Paris - to say nothing of Show Boat (1927) - but it's just not possible.
One line identifying the record as a studio cast recording, or one made 15 years after the show's premiere, would invalidate many of these gripes. (Though concerns about the recording's vast amount of dialogue would remain.) Such mistakes and omissions are practically unconscionable in a show written by aficionados, about aficionados, and for aficionados. Any true aficionado knows that what happens here can't happen.
But even if it could, it wouldn't much lift the quality of the show-within-the-show: The dialogue is faux-arch-parodic, not genuinely clueless fun. And the compositions don't recall 20s styles as much as approximate them in modern terms: Only "Accident Waiting to Happen," a molasses-sticky duet for Robert and Janet, is appropriately Tin Pan Alley-smooth, though "Cold Feets" is a fine tap duet for Korbich and Johnson. But would-be showstoppers like Foster's "Show Off," Leavel's non-rousing, non-anthemic rousing anthem "As We Stumble Along", and the bizarre "Bride's Lament" (in which monkeys feature prominently) herald from another tradition entirely.
Both actresses command the stage, even if their style is overblown contemporaneity instead of legitimate '20s star stuff. (And, for a '20s musical comedy, where's the legit soprano ingénue?) Johnson has the right slick smarminess, and Korbich's is so perfect as a go-anywhere hoofer of a best man that he proves himself yet again the ideal second-banana born 60 years too late for stardom. Other performers, including Danny Burstein as a resplendently ridiculous, indiscriminately Mediterranean lover, and Georgia Engel and Edward Hibbert as vaudeville-shtick wedding hosts, simply try too hard.
But David Gallo's apartment set, into which Drowsy's marriage mansion inventively irrupts, is a clever creation, and Gregg Barnes's costumes are exquisite (especially for a one-minute gag centering on a song called "Message From a Nightingale," the evening's surprise highlight). How much they, or Ken Billington and Brian Monahan's lighting, really recall the '20s, I can't say, but with overaudible amplification and no chorus of 75, nothing about the production exactly screams 1920s anyway.
Such things, alas, are too much to hope for, as is The Drowsy Chaperone as a guaranteed savior from the dullish new Broadway musicals this season. (One doubts that the scores of Lestat or The Wedding Singer will inspire many new "Man in Chair"s decades from now, though In My Life has a shot.) As it is, it's the best of a dreary lot.
But Martin's performance is a spirited reminder of the joy that musicals can inspire, and there can be no doubt from it, or his book, of his fondness for musicals and the people who adore them. That makes it all the more troubling that he and his collaborators couldn't put forth the extra effort necessary to get more of the details right.