Saturday, April 26, 2008

An eye-popping Drowsy Chaperone

"I hate theatre. It's so disappointing, isn't it."

Those lines would seem an inauspicious opening to a frothy musical like The Drowsy Chaperone (that's the Broadway cast at top, although it includes many in the current tour). But coming from the dark before the "curtain" rises, they at least honestly channel the conflicted feelings of the speaker (and his audience). Known simply as "Man in Chair," he represents the theatre queen in all of us - that sweet, unassuming, average schmoe who mourns what the musical has become ("Elton John, must we continue this charade?") and who hopes against hope every time the curtain rises that "the actors will stay out of the audience, there will be a story, and some tunes that take you away."

The problem with Drowsy Chaperone, the imaginary Jazz-Age show that Man in Chair conjures for us from a battered LP ("Yes, I have records," he says with emphasis) is that its story offers few surprises, and it doesn't really deliver those tunes - as in, the kind that take you away (although yes, its score is a helluva lot better than Elton John). The true surprise, however, is that somehow that doesn't matter. The show takes you away anyway, and more powerfully (and a lot faster) than anything I've seen in years.

This is almost entirely due to the sweet conceit of its narrator, that cardigan-clad "Man in Chair," and the masterly performance in the role by Jonathan Crombie (that's him at left channeling Andrea Chamberlain as a glamourpuss chorine), who poignantly essays the character's nebbishly intelligence and his longing for rapture, as well as his fluttery sense of internal defeat - as he puts it, "in the real world, nothing ever works out, and the only people who break into song are mentally deranged." Of course other "meta" -musicals have parodied the fizzy innocence of the 20's musical - years before Chaperone there was The Boyfriend, then Dames at Sea, but Man in Chair offers us a different perspective, I think, on the ditzy confections of yesteryear. Those productions pulled their self-awareness right up onstage; under the proscenium arch, they were hopelessly arch themselves, and congratulated us for being so knowing. Chaperone, however, plays its show-within-a-show absolutely straight; it never hints at its own ridiculousness, and if the Man in Chair sometimes does, it's in a tone of forgiving adoration. In a word, his nostalgia is almost a form of wisdom - he knows we're no better off being so knowing.

Although know his show-tunes he certainly does - he even offers us mini-biographies of the forgotten stars who pop out of his refrigerator (and closet) and slowly take over his dingy apartment (designed by the ingenious David Gallo). Their characters - with names like "Kitty" and "Trix" - include, of course, a Broadway star who's giving up everything for love, the producer who's determined to stop her, the handsome groom who tap-dances in tails, the loud-mouthed chorine who ain't as dumb as she seems, a Latin love-god, a couple of gangsters, an aviatrix ("Today we call those ladies lesbians," Man in Chair notes gently), and of course, the eponymous Chaperone, who's basically drowsy because she's so blowsy (with a martini glass perpetually at the ready). There's also Georgia Engel, of Mary Tyler Moore Show fame (which now seems almost as far away in time as the Ziegfeld Follies), doing her trademark, sweetly blank schtick as the tottering Mrs. Tottendale, who's always forgetting that "today there's a wedding!"

And not only does the show get its daffy plot just right, it also nails its dancing style - director (and former choreographer) Casey Nicholaw somehow delivers the genuine Jazz-Age article - the goofy windmills in place, the stunt dances on skates (with blindfolds!) - and even throws in silly asides, like what happens to the cast when the record starts to skip, or the power goes out. Indeed, the whole show is a kind of choreographic tour de force - even the Man in Chair flits about in something like a dance - and luckily, the cast has hoofing chops to spare, so even if they can't quite melt our hearts with song (alas, next to Chaperone, The Boyfriend looks like South Pacific), they can still dazzle us with fancy footwork. The entire ensemble deserves praise, but I'd be remiss not to single out Andrea Chamberlain's cart-wheeling heroine, Nancy Opel's gimlet-chugging chaperone (she was nominated for a Tony for this role, and deserved it), James Moye's ludicrous lothario, and Mark Ledbetter's beaming bridegroom (above, with Chamberlain). Of course, his happy-go-lucky attitude is not so hard to explain - by the time the curtain falls, you'll be beaming, too.

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