Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, November 2007.
You canít see The Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway this Thanksgiving week because of the stagehandsí strike. But for about half the cost of a New York ticket you can see the Broadway tour at Proctorís, with the sublime Georgia Engel reprising her role as the ditsy Mrs. Tottendale. This bright and silly show, which won itself a pile of Tonys and other awards, is ideal family fare for this long holiday weekend.
The show opens in the dark with a disembodied manís voice waxing nostalgic for the moments of darkness and silence in a Broadway theatre before the overture begins and the curtain goes up. When the lights come on we see him, Man in Chair (Jonathan Crombie), in his Mister Rogers cardigan in his simple studio apartment. He is feeling a little blue and so he puts on the original cast album (Yes, an LP that revolves on a turntable. In fact it a double record set.) of his favorite Broadway musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, circa 1928, with Beatrice Stockwell as the Chaperone. As the overture ends the music and the characters suddenly become real, filling his apartment as they fill his mind, and he acts as our narrator, sharing what he loves and hates about the show as it goes along.
Of course, there was no 1928 musical entitled The Drowsy Chaperone, and even if there were one they would not have recorded an original cast album. Oklahoma! in 1943 was the first show to try that marketing ploy. This show is a wholly original musical comedy (or, as it is subtitled, a musical within a comedy) with a book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, and music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison. It is a little valentine to American musical theatre, with an emphasis on the word American. Back in the 1920s no other culture was producing musicals, and even though the shows that were cranked out then (hundreds of shows opened on Broadway each season and three months was considered a long run) were barely memorable, they sowed the seeds and built the audiences for the great works of Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and beyond.
Indeed if The Drowsy Chaperone had existed, it would have already been a dinosaur, since the first great divide in American musical theatre had already happened with the opening of Kern and Hammersteinís Show Boat in 1927. Show Boat and later Oklahoma! tipped the scales so heavily in favor of musicals with actual plots that frilly Wodehousian nonsense like The Drowsy Chaperone became instant antiques.
But for Man in Chair listening to this music, singing along, looking at the photos on the record jacket, and recalling little details of the performers lives and careers is a little slice of heaven. And I can relate because I am frequently Woman in Chair, warbling tunelessly along, a glass of bourbon in my hand, my family scurrying to escape my clutches before I can bore them to tears with a funny anecdote about when the leading manís pants fell down or the genesis of a particular lyric.
The bottom line is that all Godís people are divided into two types Ė those who love musical theatre and those who donít. There really isnít a middle ground, you either love it or you hate it. If you love it and if your brain is a cornucopia of useless tunes and facts like mine, you will just adore this show.
But even if you are a musical neophyte, there is a tremendous amount of fun to be had here. While the show lost the Tony for Best Musical to Jersey Boys (Sheesh!) it won Tonys and Drama Desk Awards for its book, music, lyrics, sets, and costumes. And frankly I think director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw was robbed because I found his work really fresh and inventive, and I see a LOT of musical theatre. His use of David Galloís brilliant now-you-see-it-now-you donít set and the delightful way in which he mixed new and creative moves into standard Broadway dance routines showed a great mind at work. This was Nicholawís Broadway directorial debut (he did the choreography for Monty Pythonís Spamalot which lands at Proctorís for a run January 8-13) and I predict a great future for him.
Actually, for a 1928 show The Drowsy Chaperone has quite a coherent plot, with nary a ďleg numberĒ (i.e. a feeble excuse for acres of scantily clad chorines) in sight. Janet Van De Graff (Andrea Chamberlain), star of the Feldzieg Follies, intends to give up the stage to marry oil heir Robert Martin (Marl Ledbetter) at the country estate of Mrs. Tottendale (Engel). Feldzieg (Cliff Bemis) has pursued her to try to persuade her to change her mind, and he in turned has been pursued by an ambitious chorine named Kitty (Marla Mindell) and two Gangsters (Paul and Peter Riopelle) disguised as Pastry Chefs. George (Richard Vida), the Best Man, is determined that Janet and Robert shanít see each other on their wedding day and so he has hired a Chaperone (Nancy Opel) for Janet, who is inclined to drink way too much, despite it being Prohibition, and is therefore often ďdrowsyĒ on the job. Feldzieg has hired a pea-brained Latin lover, Aldolpho (James Moyle,) to seduce the bride. Mrs. Tottendaleís butler Underling (Robert Dorfman), a building superintendent (Chuck Rea), and an African-American aviatrix, Trix (Fran Jaye), add to the mayhem.
Yes, thereís an airplane and everyone flies down to Rio. What else would a dozen or so people do in a bi-plane?
Of course thatís the plot of the fictitious 1928 musical The Drowsy Chaperone. The 2006 musical of the same title is also about Man in Chair and the fictional performers who appear in the 1928 show. Got it? Well donít worry, you will. Despite clocking in at about 105 minutes without an intermission, Martin, McKellar, Lambert, and Morrison manage to pack plenty of succinctly hilarious information into the book and lyrics.
It is hard for me to comment on the individual performers because I was seated so very far away from the stage that I could not clearly discern their facial expressions. They all embodied their characters and caricatures vividly enough that I could tell them apart from three stories above the stage, and their voices were so thoroughly miked that I probably could have heard them seated in my car in the parking garage. Like any Broadway touring company, they were professional and proficient, an able reproduction of the original for those of us too poor or too far removed from the Great White Way to see the real thing.
That is why it was a real treat to see Engel. I frankly donít think I would have wanted to go if she hadnít been appearing. Yes, you could get someone to do an impression of the wispy, bouncy, blonde actress, but it would be only a pale imitation. On Broadway the producers have wisely hired the tall, loud, brunette Joanne Worley as the second Mrs. Tottendale, because they knew that there was no one else remotely like Engel. I am sure Worley is wonderful, by the way, just completely different.
The other actor who really made a strong impression from so far away was Crombie, who really made the nameless Man in Chair a person I felt that I knew and cared about by the end. My companion, a woman young enough to be my daughter, was swooning over Crombie because she had happy memories of his portrayal of Gilbert Blythe in the popular Canadian Anne of Green Gables series which aired here on PBS. She had to Google Georgia Engel to see what I was so excited about. So there are stars for two generations in this production.
I also got a kick out of the Riopelle brothers (real-life identical twins) as the gangsters/pastry chefs. Nicholaw has created very savvy synchronized moves for these characters which are probably a pretty good approximation of the ethnic vaudeville double acts of the late 19th and early 20th century. The Riopelles performed in perfect synch with great verve and earned big hands for each of their brief turns.
Even from my perch in Proctorís Cloud Circle, I could tell that the costumes by Greg Barnes were dazzling. The quick changes in I Donít Wanna Show Off were truly amazing and I still donít know how they did that one behind the beach umbrella.
David Gallo has designed sets inside of sets. We are always in Man in Chairís apartment, of course, but it ingeniously morphs into grand entry halls, gardens, boudoirs, etc. at the blink of an eye. I especially loved the Murphy bed stage left that was magnificently clad in a different gorgeous set of bedding every time it was pulled out of the wall (was Martha Stewart backstage?) and often adored with a couple of actors as well.
As it says in one the faux 1928 reviews on the CD case: ďIf you only see one show about a drowsy chaperone this season, make it The Drowsy Chaperone.Ē I heartily concur.
The Broadway tour of The Drowsy Chaperone will be performed November 20 & 21 at 8 p.m., November 23 & 24 at 2 & 8 p.m., and November 25 at 2 p.m. on the Main Stage at Proctor's, 432 State Street, Schenectady, NY. The show runs an hour and forty-five minutes with NO intermission and it is suitable for the whole family. Tickets are $60, $55, $40, and $20 for Cloud Club balcony seating. For tickets and information call the Box Office (518) 346-6204 or Proctors Information Line - (518) 382-1083.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007