Reviewed by David Spencer
I will say but two things about The Drowsy Chaperone:
(1) It's delicious. The best musical of the season. Go.
(2) Timing is everything.
The second statement is for a postscript. As to the first:
The Drowsy Chaperone is the ultimate in pastiche parody. It lampoons musicals of the pre-Oklahoma! period, going back to the Anything Goes sensibility of the 20s and 30s -- shows in which eccentric characters gather for an occasion and madness and farce ensue. But making the experience pitch-perfect is the fact that it's a show within a show. We open in a fussy, efficiency apartment in New York City (perhaps, though it's never identified by name), where we meet our host, described in the Playbill only as Man in Chair (libretto co-author Bob Martin). But he's more than that. He's an (implicitly) gay musical theatre devotee, besotted with history and minutiae about bygone eras, and after a few -- this will sound oxymoronic but trust me -- gently pithy observations about the state of current affairs in certain quarters, versus what musicals ought to do at their best, he offers to share one with us...via a live, late-20s recording of a full show, remastered from the original acetates (there were no real cast albums at that time, and this "remastered live recording" gambit is the breathtakingly slender thread of verisimilitude upon which the whole brilliant conceit hangs). And of course it's on vinyl. After removing disk one lovingly from the double sleeve, and giving it a careful wipe with a soft brush, he places it on the turntable, lowers the tone arm, and we hear the static before the stylus hits the sound grooves...
And The Drowsy Chaperone begins. As we listen. the production infiltrates our host's apartment, refigerator door, closets and hallways becoming entrance and exit passageways, incongrous yet strangely complementary design fragments flown in and out, wheeled on and off. (Design -- scenery, David Gallo; costumes, Gregg Barnes; lighting, Ken Billington and Brian Monahan.)
The show itself is a confection in which a young musical theatre star (Sutton Foster) is about to retire to marry a society boy (Troy Britton Johnson), to the frustration of her producer (Lenny Wolpe). The boy has a boon companion to arrange wedding details and tapdance on cue (Eddie Korbich); and the girl has her confidante and advisor, a woman who likes tee many martoonies, the drowsy (an arcane word for tipsy) chaperone of the title (Beth Leavel). And the producer has a problem, because he's in debt and needs his star back on Broadway before the comic gangsters disguised as bakers (actual brothers Garth and Jason Kravits) rub him out. So the producer hires a notorious (yet incredibly stupid) Latin lover (Danny Burstein) to lure his star back to the fold. (The performance of every single role is the proverbial slice of heaven, indelibly and singularly stamped with the imprimatur of its originator -- you don't envy their replacements. And there'll be many of them.)
What elevates The Drowsy Chaperone far above pleasantries like Dames at Sea and Little Mary Sunshine, what even gives it, dare I say, depth -- the kind of lasting resonance that typifies really great musicals -- is that our host imbues the evening with footnotes and interjections, giving us not only historical and artistic perspective -- but backstory on the "actual" 1920s performers who played the roles: how they were indulged, what they were known for, signature tics, career aberrations, etc. So we're not merely watching and sharing a light '20s musical featuring cardboard characters...we're always aware, if only in broad strokes, of the "real" people behind the portrayals.
Now, the "real" is as fanciful as the "fake" of course, and it's all quite silly; yet it has the ring of authentic musical theatre history. This is unsurprising, as that kind of backstage "realism" is a hallmark of the creative team, all of whom have been involved with that splendid Canadian TV series (yes, they're all from Up There) Slings and Arrows, set backstage at a Shakespeare festival not unlike the Stratford. Co-librettist Bob Martin was an S&A co-writer; his collaborator Don McKellar was an S&A co-star; and songwriters Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (whose score, if not precisely "great," is the greatest of fun, tuneful, catchy and always apt) wrote the S&A opening and closing themes. They also all share a history of improv, via Second City, and this capacity to run with sudden input and needed quick changes has, from all reports, transformed The Drowsy Chaperone from its roots as a fun novelty show to something wildly wonderful. And it has been guided to perfection by director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw.
What they've created is something extravagantly madcap and effusive, yet miraculously controlled and contained. It's a musical that breaks all the structural rules by honoring their history and development. It is in short, a musical theatre lover's dream show about musical theatre loving.
And you won't be drowsy for a second of it...
As to that postscript:
As I say: timing -- in history as well as in comedy -- is everything.
In the 70s, before computers and what Michael Crichton dubbed "electronic life"; before the availability of digital media made musical theatre available and felt worldwide on a scale theretofore unknown; before the generation of both academic and recreational baby boomers who used that media to make musical theatre fandom and archiving so thorough as to transform even esoteric interest into a catalog easily and encouragingly available to the mainstream marketplace; self-referential evenings were a hard sell. A concert series of under-performed musicals at Town Hall that seemed at first every bit as impressive as Encores! -- its debut offering was She Loves Me starring Barry Bostwick, Madeline Kahn, Rita Moreno, Laurence Guittard and George Rose -- shut down for lack of ticket sales. And another musical -- similarly by writers with their roots in improv/standup/TV comedy (Music: Matt Dubey, Dean Fuller; Book: Dean Fuller, Tony Hendra, Matt Dubey; Lyrics: Matt Dubey, Dean Fuller; and by the way, superb orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, right then at the top of his game, the Sondheim-Prince output still going strong) -- similarly an affectionate lampoon of musical theatre conventions (albeit of the post Oklahoma! 50s and 60s) -- opened at what was then the Entermedia Theatre, a Broadway-sized house that happened to be downtown in the East Village. It was called Smith, it was about a repressed and colorless man, a botanist by trade, who suddenly finds himself trapped in a musical comedy. As he tries to make sense of the universe he's been thrust into -- with the dancing version of his girlfriend, airplane steps that lead nowhere but the wings, "working" rotary phones with no wires to a landline, in-one crossovers to cover scene changes -- he becomes more and more depressed and disenfranchised -- until ultimately he finds the music within his soul. (It didn't hurt that a particularly unmusical-seeming actor -- Don Murray -- was cast in the title role, while all around him were musical theatre veterans.
The show lasted but a few weeks; bad producing, wrong theatre, inadequate publicity, not enough time for fanboys and girls to discover it, plus it opened on a Saturday night, a notoriously dumb time for anything to open back then, because reviews tended to get buried in the Sunday papers or lost in the Mondays (sounds goofy, I know, but that was the perceived reality). Yet it remains among the funniest, freshest evenings of theatre I've ever spent. And it contained this golden moment:
Top of Act Two. At the height of his despondency, Smith seems to have given up. He sits, morose, as scenery changes around him. A burly stagehand (wonderfully played by Louis Criscuolo) susses out Smith's problem, says, "You know what you need, pal?" The signals the musical director to "hit it"; music begins and the stagehand sings:
You need a song.
A peppy song
That any bum, he can hum goin' home.
You need a song.
A pretty song.
With pretty words like you read in a po'm.
It should be clear,
A song that starts in your heart
And sticks in your ear.
So get a song.
A catchy song.
And put it -- right here.
The other stagehands join in, cajoling Smith to get with the program. A chorus or so later, he does, suddenly rising and croaking out his first notes:
You need a song.
A peppy song
That any bum, he can hum goin' home.
And the stagehand puts two hands around his mouth like a megaphone and shouts: "SING OUT, LOUISE!"
To this day, I remember the response to that as the biggest and most explosive laugh I have ever heard in the theatre.
The show is licensed by Samuel French.
Someone oughtta check it out sometime...