If you want to get some idea of what it means to be over the moon for musical comedy, pay a visit to Broadway's Marquis Theatre, where a disarming, delightful souffle called "The Drowsy Chaperone," is making a strong case for song-and-dance obsession.
We are in the world of the true believer, in other words, a fan, a fellow simply called Man in Chair (portrayed by the engaging Bob Martin), who champions the world of musical theater.
"I just want a story and a few good songs that will take me away. I just want to be entertained. I mean, isn't that the point?" he says directly to the audience at the beginning of the evening.
Well, yes. And "The Drowsy Chaperone," delivers, not only as sparkling entertainment but, on another level, as a touching tribute to those often lonely folks out there in the dark who cheer on their favorite shows and stars.
In this case, the show within the show is called "The Drowsy Chaperone," a fictitious 1928 musical that comes to life when our cardigan-wearing narrator, sitting quietly in his dumpy apartment, lovingly puts the original-cast album on his record player.
One of things that makes this production so enjoyable is that it is unexpected. We haven't seen anything quite this original in a long time. "The Drowsy Chaperone," co-authored by Martin and Don McKellar, began life as a small fringe show in Toronto, gradually getting bigger before it was expanded for a production late last year in Los Angeles by the Center Theatre Group.
Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw must be a Broadway baby because he has captured the giddy (some might say silly) world of 1920s musical theater, a time before shows got serious and often self-important.
"Drowsy," which has music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, revels in the cliches of the era, its characters a parade of stock figures out of what theatergoers expected in those frivolous days before the Depression.
Its story is pure escapism. A theater star is getting married, much to the chagrin of her producer, who wants to stop the wedding. A slightly tipsy older woman -OK, now you know where the title comes from - is on guard to look after the young woman. Add, among others, the debonair bridegroom, his tap-dancing best man, two gangsters posing as pastry chefs, an over-the-top Italian matinee idol, a dotty wealthy woman, her supercilious butler, the producer's dimwitted girlfriend and an aviator and you pretty much have the whole cast.
Nicholaw has directed the show with affection, using performers who can sing, crack bad jokes and cope with his gloriously inventive choreography. In one absolutely dizzy production number, the stage star, played by Sutton Foster, decides she no longer wants to be a showoff on stage - and then precisely does just that.
Foster, brassy yet sweetly vulnerable at the same time, demonstrates why she is a complete musical-comedy performer, one who can do just about anything - including a one-handed cartwheel. Broadway-cured ham is delivered by Danny Burstein as that scenery-chewing Italian Lothario and Beth Leavel, as the musical's title character, a liquor-swilling queen of the slow-burning retort.
But then everyone gets their moment to shine, whether its Georgia Engel and Edward Hibbert doing a moldy vaudeville routine, leading man Troy Britton Johnson crooning a smooth ditty called "Accident Waiting to Happen" while roller-skating blindfolded or Eddie Korbich hoofing his way through a snappy tune called "Cold Feets," which is anything but frigid.
Even the look of the musical is fun. Designer David Gailo's drab apartment magically transforms into the perfect musical-comedy setting. And Gregg Barnes' costumes are not only gorgeous visually but witty as well.
While all this frivolity is going on, Man in Chair gleefully watches the proceedings. He sings along, mimes dance routines and occasionally gives us personal histories on some of the performers who starred in that 1928 production, including one whose unfortunate demise involved a couple of man-eating poodles (don't ask).
Man in Chair clearly loves what he is listening to. It takes him out of the dreary real world that occasionally intrudes on the show he is celebrating. He wants us to enjoy "The Drowsy Chaperone" as much as he does. You know what? We do.
Is destiny watching out for "The Drowsy Chaperone?"
It seems so. First, a theater miraculously opens up with the abrupt departure of "The Woman in White." Then "Chaperone" arrives after a succession of mediocrities - "Lestat," "The Wedding Singer" and "Hot Feet."
Even without these portents, "Chaperone" would have been cause for rejoicing. It's full of wit and high spirits, so entertaining you can overlook the fact it came from Los Angeles.
What saves "Chaperone" from being merely another parody of the innocent, dizzy musicals of the '20s is its narrator.
Yes, I know, I shouldn't approve of this device, which implies that someone is telling the story rather than having actors act it out. In this case, however, the voice of the narrator, Man in Chair, is so special it casts a glow over the whole evening.
Man in Chair is sitting in a cluttered apartment trying to cheer himself up. What better way than to put on his cast album of 1928's "The Drowsy Chaperone"? As he plays the record and talks about the
silly, showbiz romance in his wry, sometimes defensive tone ("Ignore the lyrics," he urges us at one point), the musical comes to life around him.
His limitless delight in the lost world he's describing is communicated perfectly to us. We laugh, and we're also touched.
We laugh because the cast is extraordinarily talented. Sutton Foster is expectedly adorable as the heroine. Beth Leavel is droll as her chaperone. Jennifer Smith is perfect as a showbiz bimbo. Danny Burstein is hilarious as an aging lothario.
Particularly expert are Georgia Engel and Edward Hibbert doing a silly vaudeville bit that had me helpless with laughter.
But the most marvelous is Bob Martin, as Man in Chair. Martin, as it happens, also co-wrote the book, with Don McKellar. The effervescent score is by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison.
Casey Nicholaw's direction and choreography show a gorgeous sense of style.
What a contrast to "Hot Feet," which opened the night before, a mindless retelling of "The Red Shoes" to a score by Earth, Wind & Fire. The show is notable mainly for Vivian Nixon, a powerful dancer, though there's also strong work by Ann Duquesnay and Michael Balderrama.
How the cast can perform Maurice Hines' exhaustingly gymnastic choreography eight times a week without killing themselves is a mystery, but my hunch is they'll soon be reprieved.
The title - "The Drowsy Chaperone," the avowedly new musical that opened last night at the Marquis Theatre - virtually says it all.
I understand that this little, horrifyingly pastiche musical started life in someone's living room in Canada. It should have stayed there. It must have been a hoot.
The show starts in the dark, with an unseen voice assuring us the show is going to be short - mercifully, it is - and it isn't by Elton John, which must have been comforting except to those few stragglers who might have turned up at the wrong theater expecting "The Lion King."
The hidden voice also suggests, on behalf of the audience, "I didn't pay a hundred bucks to have the fourth wall come crashing down around my ears." Then the lights go up, revealing someone called the Man in the Chair, who starts to talk to us directly to the sound of a fourth wall crashing.
This guy lives for musical comedy, and for his collection of old musicals lovingly preserved in the amber of shellac discs. Before you can tell him to get a life, he's telling you about some fictitious 1928 musical called "The Drowsy Chaperone."
Why not revive "No, No Nanette," for God's sake. Oh, Canada! Oh, Canada.
Of course, Canada wouldn't be Canada without a queen, and this musical comedy queen, played with a neat disparaging humor by Bob Martin (although, as he's also co-author of the musical's book, he has a lot to be disparaging about), introduces the characters.
Don't worry, I won't.
Martin was assisted on the book - writing by Don McKellar - both could have done with more assistance - and the music and lyrics, which sound vaguely familiar, like songs you can't quite place dimly heard from another room, are by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison.
The show's not a total wipeout. Although its humor tends toward lines such as "an aviatrix, what we now call a lesbian," there are a few nicely wry jokes; the supposed opening of the second half (luckily, or perhaps cautiously, there's no intermission) is really smart, and the performers, Broadway veterans all except for Martin, are pretty good.
Encouraged to play within an inch of their lives by first-time Broadway director Casey Nicholaw and wearing Gregg Barnes' ditsy costumes while maneuvering around David Gallo's cute but oppressive scenery, they do absolutely fine.
Sutton Foster is as bright as a penny as the heroine, and among the musical comedy stooges, an implacable Edward Hibbert as a butler and Eddie Korbich as the hero's Best Man (the plot disconsolately circles around a wedding) are also outstanding.
But the show itself should break records - preferably of "The Drowsy Chaperone."
The gods of timing, who are just as crucial to success in show business as mere talent is, have smiled brightly upon "The Drowsy Chaperone," the small and ingratiating musical that opened last night at the big and intimidating Marquis Theater. Though this revved-up spoof of a 1920's song-and-dance frolic, as imagined by an obsessive 21st-century show queen, seems poised to become the sleeper of the Broadway season, it is not any kind of a masterpiece.
Without its ingenious narrative framework and two entrancing performances — by Bob Martin as a lonely, musical-loving schlemiel with a hyperactive fantasy life and Sutton Foster as the showgirl heroine of his dreams — "The Drowsy Chaperone" would feel at best like a festive entree at a high-end suburban dinner theater.
But try telling that to the theatergoers who are responding to this hard-working production as if they were withering house plants that, after weeks of neglect, have finally tasted water again. "The Drowsy Chaperone," which has songs by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison and a book by Mr. Martin and Don McKellar, arrives at a moment when Broadway audiences have been battered, bruised and bludgeoned to sleep by blunt instruments of shows like "Ring of Fire" and "Lestat."
And now here is a musical that frankly sets itself up as a short (1 hour 40 minutes), happy exercise in escapism, adorned with just enough postmodern footnotes to make you feel all insiderly. It's sort of like being able to eat your cake and diet too.
Surely few productions have ever pulled an audience so immediately and unconditionally on their sides. The first few minutes of "The Drowsy Chaperone," which began professional life at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 1999, take place in complete darkness, while an anxious but companionable voice drifts from the stage like a life line.
"I hate theater," the voice says. "Well, it's so disappointing, isn't it?" This voice, which belongs to a character called Man in Chair (rendered with clinical exactitude by Mr. Martin), offers up the prayer he says he always mutters before a show, requesting that it be short, free of actors who roam the audience and blessed with "a story and a few good songs that will take me away."
Imagine, he continues, a time when audiences eagerly awaited the latest from Cole Porter and the Gershwins. "Now," the Man says, "it's, 'Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?' "
Luckily for us, this Man — who is subsequently revealed sitting, alone, in a humble studio apartment — refuses to go away. He puts on a vinyl record of a 1928 musical called, yes, "The Drowsy Chaperone." And his drab little apartment becomes a show palace (with glitzy fantasy sets and costumes courtesy of David Gallo), with the original cast members summoned into being to recreate the production.
So we have been thoroughly primed to appreciate whatever follows, which turns out to be one of those intricately (and improbably) plotted tales of love in crisis — involving gangsters, show people, millionaires and servants — that showed up regularly in productions with titles like "Oh, Kay!" and "Sitting Pretty."
Unfortunately the musical in "The Drowsy Chaperone" isn't as astute or amusing on its own as what the Man has to say about it. The cast members are bright and eager and energetic, but with a couple of exceptions they don't quite grasp what it is they're sending up.
Musicals from the era of "The Drowsy Chaperone" had a renewed vogue in the mid-20th century, with works that ranged from pure parody (Sandy Wilson's "Boy Friend" in 1954, "Dames at Sea" in 1968) to retooled versions of the real thing ("No, No, Nanette" in 1971). The difference between these earlier productions and "The Drowsy Chaperone" is that the commentary — arch and adoring at the same time — was built into the style of the performances.
Appropriately for an age in which self-consciousness has become as essential (and expected) an element of human communication as vocal cords are, "The Drowsy Chaperone" divides the chores and lets Mr. Martin's character do most of the interpretive work. Everybody else, with one notable exception, just seems to be having a good old time, hamming it up in ways more reminiscent of broad television revue comedy (remember the old-movie parodies on "The Carol Burnett Show"?) than of the age of Gershwin and Kern.
Directed and choreographed with untiring buoyancy by Casey Nicholaw, the cast members include Lenny Wolpe and Jennifer Smith as a sort of George Burns and Gracie Allen team; Troy Britton Johnson as the toothy and toothsome leading man; Danny Burstein as an overacting pseudo-Latin lover; and Beth Leavel as a strutting, martini-swigging vamp, enlisted as chaperone on the wedding day of one Janet Van De Graaff (Sutton Foster), darling of the Broadway stage, who is about to give it all up for love.
By the way, while "No, No, Nannette" had Ruby Keeler (the tap-dancing ingénue of the film "42nd Street") on board as a performer to lend nostalgia-enhancing authenticity, "The Drowsy Chaperone" has Georgia Engel, who plays a ditsy, feathery-voiced rich woman. Ms. Engel, you may recall, portrayed Georgette, Ted Baxter's dimwitted girlfriend, on "Mary Tyler Moore." More than 30 years later she looks and sounds almost exactly the same, which sort of confuses the issues of what we're being sentimental about.
Oh, well. Ms. Engel and Edward Hibbert (who plays an inflexibly proper butler) perform spit take after spit take with gusto, as well as a sweet duet when they discover their love for each other. And the rest of the cast tap-dances up such a storm that you have no choice but to applaud. But the genuine wit lies almost entirely in Mr. Martin's asides and annotations.
The one performer who makes us forget about Mr. Martin is Ms. Foster, who has hitherto been known for her exhausting peppiness in shows like "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Little Women." As Janet the Broadway glamourpuss, a part that would seem made for excess, Ms. Foster instead pulls in the reins and gives a gloriously artificial, deadpan account of a woman who is almost as in love with love as she is with herself.
A little number called "Show Off" — in which Janet sings that she no longer needs attention while doing everything she can (including cartwheels) to hold the spotlight — is the one song that, on its own, lifts the audience into a helium paradise of pure pleasure. (Over all the songs, while serviceably imitative of the 1920's, are forgettable.)
Otherwise you have to squint compassionately to imagine that the characters onstage are as Mr. Martin would have us believe they are. Though I could have done without some shrill revelations about his character's mother fixation, Man in the Chair is a vital addition to the gallery of Broadway archetypes.
Judging by audience reaction to "The Drowsy Chaperone," his hunger for a bona fide escapist musical would seem to be shared by many. If this production doesn't entirely fulfill that wish, it at least lets audiences express it in one fed-up communal voice.
It begins in that dark moment, the blink after the house lights go out and the stage lights come up. But this time, we hear a voice in the blackness. It belongs to a man who, in a friendly but caustic tone, imagines the days when theatergoers sat in the dark wondering what the Gershwins or Cole Porter might have for them that night. Then he says something unfriendly but funny about Elton John and admits to sitting in darkened theaters these days praying that the show is short.
And, right away, we belong to him.
"The Drowsy Chaperone," which began in such a way at the Marquis Theatre last night, is short. It is also madly in love with the theater, but with a nice wicked streak. And like our guide - called only Man in Chair - it is positively gooey about old musical fluffballs. By the time the house lights come on again, we feel pretty gooey about this new one.
"Drowsy" - already buzzed about as the sleeper of the season - gets a little tiresome and, even at 105 minutes, a bit overextended. But it also is sweetheart of an escapist musical that celebrates the foolish magic of escapist distractions. Even if we don't agree with the Man that "the point" of theater is "to be entertained [by] a story and a few good songs," he makes it feel unseemly to argue with him now.
Besides, he is feeling a "little blue" himself, which is the motivation for him to play for us an LP of a favorite musical from 1928, "remastered from the original." As he sits in his chair, his seedy apartment with the show-biz memorabilia and grimy old kitchen appliances begins to transform, scene by scene, into the Jazz Age neverland of "The Drowsy Chaperone."
If this sounds like a comic sketch, consider the source. The show began in 1998 as bachelor-party entertainment in Toronto for Bob Martin, a member of the Canadian wing of Second City. By the time "Drowsy" was embraced in Los Angeles, Martin was the Man, a lonely musical-theater queen in soft corduroys and self-lacerating ironic gentility.
Director Casey Nicholaw - the choreographer responsible for the hilarious musical spoofs in "Spamalot" - maintains an intimate homemade quality amid the vast environs of the Marquis. And (Sutton Foster, who won her Tony Award in this same theater as the '20s ingenue in "Thoroughly Modern Millie," uses that same gawky lyricism to transform into a '20s diva on the brink of throwing it all away for love.
The book, by Martin and Don McKellar understands the preposterous appeal of those stock musicals of a certain age. Though the Man shares his rapture about the form, he also knows its faults. "I hate this scene," he says of a spit-take routine between the dowager (a delightful Georgia Engel) and her butler, called Underling (the deliciously sneering Edward Hibbert).
The expert cast includes Lenny Wolpe as the producer and Jennifer Smith as his tootsie, Troy Britton Johnson as a rich bridegroom and Beth Leavel as the blasted chaperone who gets drowsy from champagne. The songs, by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, understand pastiche from the inside. David Gallo's sets ingeniously pop up from the trap door and descend like Murphy beds from the walls. Charming costumes by Gregg Barnes know the comedy in a well-turned spat.
The Man, with no small amount of poignance, insists a musical is supposed to offer "something to take you away from the dreary horrors of the real world." We don't believe him, except right now.
New musical The Drowsy Chaperone (* * ½ out of four), which opened Monday at Broadway's Marquis Theatre, is up for more Drama Desk Awards than any other production mounted this season.
The 14 nominations should surprise no one. An homage to the transporting power of old-fashioned musical comedy, Chaperone is narrated by a character simply called Man in Chair, a neurotic fan who is obsessed with an obscure 1928 romp titled, natch, The Drowsy Chaperone.
The fictional lost classic is presented as a show within a show, its zany antics interrupted and embellished by Man's wry commentary. it's a conceit that was bound to seduce critics and theater lovers.
Not all of them, though. Call me a boor, but I've always been wary of entertainment that wears its cleverness on its sleeve.
In the opening sequence, Man recalls "a time when people sat in darkened theaters and thought to themselves, 'What have George and Ira got for me tonight? Or 'Can Cole Porter pull it off again?"
I share some of that nostalgia. But ingenious as they were, Porter and the Gershwins are worshiped not for the way their words and music impress us but for how they delight and move us.
The creators of Chaperone, in contrast, reveal a snickering self-consciousness that dilutes the sense of joy vital to this kind of tribute. Like that other critically adored escapade Urinetown!, Chaperone offers too much winking and not enough wonder.
Composer/lyricists Lisa Lambed and Greg Morrison and librettists Bob Martin and Don McKellar convey genuine affection and whimsy in honoring the curious narrator (whom Martin also plays) and in spinning his beloved tale of a starlet whose wedding is threatened by wacky developments. But they also deliver less-than-inspired snark, including cheap shots at obvious targets such as Elton John, Disney and cellphones.
Chaperone fares best when focusing on the characters who dance inside Man's head and beside him onstage. Hyper-talented Thoroughly Modern Millie star Sutton Foster multi-tasks even more dazzlingly as the actress in distress, veering from octave-jumping tunes to one-handed cartwheels.
Beth Leavel makes a dry foil as the starlet's maid of honor, who is seldom without a drink and a wisecrack at the ready.
Georgia Engel lends her eternally wide-eyed, baby-voiced drollness to the role of a society hostess, and Garth and Jason Kravitz are period-perfect as gangsters parading as pastry chefs.
These and other performances ensure plenty of bubbly moments. In the end, though, I got little kick from this champagne.
In the opening moments of the irresistible new musical "The Drowsy Chaperone," a voice from the darkened stage breaks the silence, reflecting on the pre-curtain prayers of the perennially disappointed theatergoer. Wistfully recalling a time when first-nighters tingled with anticipation of what the Gershwins or Cole Porter had in store for them, the unseen speaker then laments that now, it's "Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?" For many in the press-night crowd, the memory was all too vivid of groaning, snoring and shifting in their seats through "Lestat" a few days earlier, so the line could hardly have been better timed.
A witty valentine from musical theater lovers to the frothy tuners of the 1920s, this refreshing cocktail of a show gets the audience on its side in the opening minutes and keeps them there for the duration. Sure, the score, by Second City alumni Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, is pastiche, and purists can quibble about its period authenticity. But like "The Producers," this is superior, smartly crafted pastiche and no less entertaining for being so.
What's more remarkable, the show's sufficiently steeped in musical theater lore to tickle aficionados while its charm and laughs never risk shutting out broader auds. Wink-nudge in-jokes are rationed to avoid a condescending air of contemporary superiority. The Canadian creative team (Bob Martin and Don McKellar wrote the book) infuses its take on the genre with irony, but the genuine affection behind their simultaneous celebration of it is never in doubt.
Adding directing duties to choreography after shepherding the dancing knights of "Spamalot," Casey Nicholaw confidently marshals a large cast in a show whose metatheatrical action combines separate and intertwined playing fields, recalling "The Boyfriend." Helping maintain the buoyancy are the inventive designs of David Gallo (sets) and Gregg Barnes (costumes).
The tour guide for the show's nostalgic dip into the past is an unprepossessing theater obsessive in a shapeless cardigan, played by co-writer Martin and named only Man in Chair. In what is clearly one of many "blue" days, he resorts to his record collection -- "Yes, records" -- for comfort, selecting the original cast, two-disc recording of forgotten musical comedy "The Drowsy Chaperone."
As soon as needle hits vinyl, the flat light in the Man's characterless apartment takes on a magical glow (the work of lighting designers Ken Billington and Brian Monahan), the bars disappear from the windows, and the room is suddenly populated by figures from the Prohibition-era musical.
In the make-believe, champagne-and-caviar world, glamorous showgirl Janet Van De Graaff (Sutton Foster) is on the verge of abandoning her career to marry dashing Robert Martin (Troy Britton Johnson). Also on hand are the absent-minded lady of the house, Mrs. Tottendale (Georgia Engel); her patient butler (Edward Hibbert); and the best man (Eddie Korbich).
Then there's a theater producer (Lenny Wolpe) desperate to keep Janet in his show; his ditzy, untalented girlfriend (Jennifer Smith), who has her eye on the starring role; and two gangsters (Jason and Garth Kravits), posing as pastry chefs. Finally, there's the bride's booze-swilling chaperone (Beth Leavel), a clumsy lothario (Danny Burstein) and, somewhat arbitrarily, a fly-by aviatrix (Kecia Lewis-Evans). "What we now call a lesbian," explains Martin of the latter.
With an indulgent nod from our guide to the flimsiness of the central conflict, we learn the chief complication is the challenge of keeping bride and groom apart on the wedding day. The wafer-thinness of the droll plot is an essential element of the comedy: There's a reason this show is a forgotten one, after all. Martin's character makes no claims for classic status but regards it as something of a guilty pleasure, colored by personal associations.
So it fits also that the tunes are more serviceable than inspired. Even so, Lambert and Morrison have written some sparkling comic numbers, notably Janet's "Show Off," in which Foster (back in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" flapper mode and more gainfully employed here than in the lumpy "Little Women") feigns fatigue from the spotlight, only to dazzle with numerous costume and key changes, cartwheels and splits, plate-spinning, snake-charming, target-shooting and Houdini feats.
Other high points include Johnson and Korbich's tap-happy "Cold Feets"; Leavel's inappropriate, hilariously self-aggrandizing inspirational anthem "As We Stumble Along"; and Engel and Hibbert's sweet soft-shoe duet "Love Is Always Lovely in the End." This last prompts Man in Chair, after a drink, to wonder with a touch of irritation, "Don't you think that someone must have been aware of the awkward sexual connotation of that title?"
His commentary, both wry and enthusiastic, enlivens the songs and the amusingly belabored book scenes from the show within the show. He interjects with passionate endorsements, criticisms and helpful suggestions to the aud ("Now, when you're listening to this, try to ignore the lyrics"), also providing background on the Broadway stars playing the tuner's two-dimensional characters -- Jane Roberts as Janet was known as the Oops Girl; the actor playing Latin lover Aldolpho drank himself to death and was partially devoured by his poodles.
Martin appears to have nestled deeper into the role since the Los Angeles run last winter; while the entire ensemble is terrific in parts that demand self-awareness and a generous slice of ham, it's his nuanced characterization that gives the show its considerable heart.
As he becomes increasingly transported by the musical, his rapt attention from the sidelines in his armchair gives way to full choreographic participation, while the period artifice of Gallo's sets gradually takes over from lackluster reality. One of the most winning aspects of Martin and McKellar's book is the economy and humor with which it doles out personal information about Man in Chair -- his abortive attempt at heterosexual marriage, ugly divorce, his dietary disorders, depression and solitude.
Via its endearing onstage host, "The Drowsy Chaperone" extends a warm embrace to every show queen and misfit theater geek who ever escaped a dreary day-to-day existence by sticking a cast recording on a turntable and disappearing into the cocooning fantasy world of a musical.