Monday, April 28, 2008

The Drowsy Chaperone

On a day I'm feeling a little blue, I'd love to be able to pop Annie Hall into the DVD player and have Woody Allen and Diane Keaton step out of the screen and into my living room, acting out the story right before my eyes. And wouldn't it be even better if I invited a couple thousand people to watch it with me so I could provide a running commentary?

That's pretty much what happens to Man in Chair, the somewhat timid and lonely musical theatre maven who serves as our narrator in a very entertaining The Drowsy Chaperone. The show, which ran for 674 performances on Broadway before closing at the end of 2007, is in Boston through May 4 as part of its first national tour.

Everything changes for Man in Chair once he wipes off a record album, places it on his phonograph and carefully drops the needle onto vinyl. (Yes, a record! Remember the skipping? Remember how hard it was to lower the needle down on a specific song? Does anyone else have their soft brush and little bottle of Discwasher? I know I do!)

Once the music starts, Man in Chair's drab apartment is filled with the colorful, glamorous and hilarious cast of one of his favorite Broadway tuners - 1928's The Drowsy Chaperone - singing and dancing right before his eyes. He becomes positively ebullient - making witty, perceptive comments as he points out the show's charms and flaws.

In my opnion, the success or failure of The Drowsy Chaperone rises and falls on who's playing the role of Man in Chair. We've got to get to know him, catch some of his enthusiasm, and in the end, like him. I'm happy to report that Jonathan Crombie is terrific in the musical's touring production. As Man in Chair, Crombie is sweet, funny, quirky and immensely likable.

While it would be easy to turn the character into a caricature, Crombie never lets us forget Man in Chair's humanity. The role fits him like a favorite old sweater and a worn pair of corduroys - warm and comfortable and familiar. I never saw the show on Broadway, but I can't imagine that his fellow Canadian, Robert Martin, who wrote the Tony-winning book along with Don McKellar, and created the role, could have provided a more enjoyable experience.

At the beginning of the show, Man in Chair asks us to imagine what it was like to go to the theatre in the 1920s. Ironically, in New York, The Drowsy Chaperone played at the Marquis Theatre, which is probably Broadway's newest, located in the very modern Marriott Marquis hotel. Somehow, it seems easier to get into the mood in Boston's magnificent Opera House, which actually opened in 1928, and has been restored to its original marble and gold leaf splendor.

Granted, the plot of the musical is a little thin. Showgirl Janet Van de Graaff, played by an energetic Andrea Chamberlain, wants to give up the theatre to marry the button-down and well-off Robert Martin, played by Mark Ledbetter. Of course, complications and hijinks ensue. (In real life, Martin and Van de Graaff are married. The Drowsy Chaperone started out as a spoof created by their friends.)

As Man in Chair points out, the story is full of stock, stereotypical characters - Cliff Bemis as a cigar-chomping producer, Marla Mindelle as a ditzy starlet, James Moye as a gigolo and Nancy Opel as the tipsy title character. They're all good, but my favorite was Georgia Engel, reprising her Broadway role as the daffy Mrs. Tottendale. The moment I heard that voice, I was transported back to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I could just picture her and Ted Knight.

I'm not an expert, but I'm assuming Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison's songs, and the plot, are pretty close to what I would have heard during a night of musical theatre in the 1920s - a mixture of upbeat numbers and slower ballads, all with a good dose of humor - light and fluffy, nothing too heavy. As Man in Chair says, this show is fun.

Some parts of the musical dragged a bit. The vodka disguised as ice water joke made me laugh once. Hey, it's Prohibition, I get it. Still, there's a lot to like in the Drowsy Chaperone. Casey Nicholaw's choreography was great to watch, and I liked the way David Gallo's design transformed Man in Chair's cramped apartment into an expansive musical set. Some of my favorite parts were the terrific tap dancing in "Cold Feets," the catchy ensemble number "Toledo Surprise," and all of the groan-inducing puns. As silly as they were, each and every one of them made me laugh.

But the best parts of The Drowsy Chaperone, and what really makes it such a charming show, are Man in Chair's asides about the musical, about going to the theatre, and about how times have changed. Crombie is just delightful to watch, as he perches on the edge of his chair, his hands neatly folded in his lap and a grin on his face, eager to see and hear what comes next. Every once in awhile, he'll jump up to make a comment, telling us at one point to ignore a song's nonsensical lyrics, but to just listen to its beautiful melody.

With movies or books or television if you want to read or watch, you just do it. Theatre is unique in that you can listen to and enjoy the music of a show that you've never seen, and may never see. One of the most interesting things about Man in Chair's infatuation with The Drowsy Chaperone is that he's never actually seen the musical performed. All he has is the 2-album cast recording, handed down from his mother, and a very rich imagination.

When Man in Chair admits that while The Drowsy Chaperone isn't the greatest musical ever, he still loves it, I felt a little choked up. I've got my favorite books and movies and musicals. Maybe no one else feels the same way I do about them, but as Man in Chair would no doubt say, that's not important. What's important is the way they make me feel.


Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, You hit the nail on the head, particularly in your last point. Theatre has the unusual ability to transport us to another place and time, right before our eyes, and I believe that's what makes The Drowsy Chaperone work so well. Sure, it's not the greatest musical of all time, but I dare anyone not to have fun.

Vance said...

Totally, I know it wasn't the best show but it was fun and enjoyable nonetheless!

Personally, Bob Martin was the heart and soul of the show so I couldn't imagine anyone else taking over so I'm glad that the show can go on with other excellent talent! (I was lucky enough to see Sutton Foster for the first time in this show too who proved why she's the Broadway star she is).

Esther said...

Hey Vance,
You know, I'd heard many people say the same thing, about Bob Martin being the heart and soul of the show, so I was a little anxious going into this. But I thought Jonathan Crombie was great. He really inhabited the role, making Man in Chair such a warm and funny and likable person. More than anything else, his performance is what I'll remember about "The Drowsy Chaperone." I was totally captivated by him. And I really was a little choked up at the end. Maybe the key was getting a fellow Canadian. ;-)

Esther said...

Hey Steve:
Yeah, that's one of the things I found so interesting about the show, it really is about the power of theatre to take us to another place and time. In Man in Chair's case, he's never actually seen "The Drowsy Chaperone," but the music and his imagination take him there. And especially in the beautifully restored 1920s Boston Opera House, you really do feel transported. I definitely agree, it's a fun show, very witty and imaginative, with some great performances. And I'm not embarrassed to admit that I laughed at every single one of the bad puns!

Anonymous said...

Esther, love.

It baffles me that more theater queens (a term I use in an ecumenical sense: women and straight men can be TQs too) don't adore this show. It's a virtual love letter to musical theater, and a very funny one to boot.

As you suspect, the songs are very indicative of the period style: think No No Nanette and Good News. Lots of frivolous fun and non-integrated ballads. The songs in DC are, to some extent, deliberately bad, because that's true to the period. Some folks didn't get the joke.

Esther said...

Wow, Chris, you mean that even I can be a theatre queen?! ;-)

At first I was afraid that maybe Man in Chair was a bit of a stereotype, but I really do think that the writing, and Jonathan Crombie's performance, imbue him with a real sense of humanity. I think everyone can relate to him. We've all felt blue at one time or another, and we've all been infatuated with something.

And you're right, from beginning to end, the whole show is a total love letter to musical theatre. After watching "The Drowsy Chaperone" you get a great sense of why people love it so much. The saddest part for me was when Man in Chair tells the building superintendent quickly and adamantly that he's not a musical theatre fan. It's like he's afraid to admit it. It made the last lines, about how he loves the show anyway, despite its flaws, all the more poignant. Because we know, of course, that he does love musical theatre.

Margo said...

I adored this musical! I had used Chris' line too that this musical is a love letter to musical theatre (great minds!). I wish I could have seen Sutton Foster, but Jonathan Crombie was great, wasn't he? Such good memories from this show!

Esther said...

Thanks for the comment MOF!
Yeah, I loved Jonathan Crombie. I never saw Bob Martin in the role so I can't compare the two, but I just thought his portrayal made Man in Chair so sweet and endearing.