Terrific Drowsy Chaperone Wakes Up Great White Way

051506 article heilpern Terrific Drowsy Chaperone  Wakes Up Great White WayFor me, all roads have been leading the entire season to The Drowsy Chaperone. With a title as bad as that, it had to be good. Well, this unexpected new musical is more than good. It’s a smashing, witty and brilliantly staged show, and I enjoyed every mad minute of it. Put it this way: If you don’t end up loving The Drowsy Chaperone, there’s no hope for the world.

I was sold on its surprising charms from its opening line, which is delivered in darkness just before the curtain goes up. “I hate theater,” a man’s voice announces. “Well, it’s so disappointing, isn’t it?”

Then he adds, as if chatting to friends, “You know what I do when I’m sitting in a darkened theater waiting for the curtain to rise? I pray …. ”

No truer words ever spoken—particularly about Broadway musicals. “Dear God, please let it be a good show,” the voice continues. “And let it be short, oh Lord in heaven, please …. You know there was 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?’ Can you imagine? Now it’s ‘Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?’”

The Elton line brought down the house. From its confident outset, The Drowsy Chaperone is on the money. In the week leading up to seeing it, I saw three other new Broadway musicals—each one a symptom of what we’ve come to, which is a charade. There was the genuinely drowsy Lestat—Elton John’s bloated, amazingly boring musical about gay vampires. The least said about the jukebox dance musical, Hot Feet, the better (though its lead dancers deserve our thanks). And then there was The Wedding Singer—another musicalization of a movie and another pastiche musical (of the Flashdance 1980’s). Still, it had its moments.

In its ingenious way, The Drowsy Chaperone is pastiche too. But it becomes the irresistible real thing—a perfect 1920’s screwball romantic comedy. Time and again throughout the show, I found myself enchanted by the loving, insane spirit of it all. The voice in the dark who prays for a great night out on Broadway belongs to an anonymous man (billed as “Man in Chair”), and we first see him seated in a worn armchair in his drab bed-sitter. At first, this did not look promising. But our host and narrator is a musical queen, as indeed we all are, or will be by the time The Drowsy Chaperone has come to its glorious finale.

Man in Chair is played by the show’s gifted co-author, Bob Martin, who in his meek, geeky way resembles Charles Nelson Reilly. He adores the escapist delights of vintage musicals and plays a scratchy recording of one of his favorites for us. It’s entitled The Drowsy Chaperone, with music, he tells us knowledgeably, by Julie Gable and lyrics by Sidney Stein. “Remember?” he asks hopefully.

The risky joke is that the stock musical comedy he loves isn’t one of the greats. (It’s no Babes in Arms). But our enthusiastic host treasures it just the same. He re-creates it in his imagination for us as the characters enter mostly through his refrigerator door. “Imagine if you will,” he begins. “It’s November 1928. You’ve just arrived at the Morosco Theater in New York. It doesn’t exist anymore. It was torn down in 1982, and replaced with an enormous hotel. Unforgivable.”

We’re actually watching the show on the site of the unforgivably torn-down Morosco Theatre—at the Marquis within the enormous Marriott Marquis Hotel. But let’s not drift into bitterness now. The miraculous achievement of The Drowsy Chaperone (directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw) is that its inspired creative team knows how to stage a deliberately bad show in a first-rate way. It’s a near-secret art form. En route to wry excellence while hovering on the dodgy edge of camp, the music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison are exactly right and outstanding.

“Well, there you have it,” our host announces, recognizing a great opening number when he sees one. “All the characters have been introduced. We have a bride who’s giving up the stage for love, her debonair bridegroom, a harried producer, jovial gangsters posing as pastry chefs, a flaky chorine, a Latin lothario and an aviatrix, what we now call a lesbian.”

There’s also his most beloved character, the diva and Drowsy Chaperone herself. “What more do you need for an evening’s entertainment?” he asks us.

Nothing—provided it’s as entertaining as this. As the action progresses, our host might make certain observations. When Aldolpho, the Latin lothario in the closet with a silver streak in his pompadour, overacts just a wee bit, he comments lightly, “You certainly couldn’t get away with a performance like that nowadays, could you?” Or he might add a scholarly aside. “A little annotation,” he points out about the panicky producer and the chorine. “In real life, Kitty and Feldzieg were a couple.” He’ll even critique a routine we’ve just seen—speaking our silent thoughts. “Now, you’re probably asking yourself, ‘Why was that routine in the show?’ Well, it’s very simple: There’s a song coming up, and they needed something to allow for a set change. It’s mechanics.”

But his pleasure becomes ours. This unpretentious, winning production amounts to a love letter to musical theater. It even has its own nutty showstoppers: “Show Off,” with Sutton Foster excelling as the heroine, Janet Van De Graaff, or the terrific “As We Stumble Along” from Beth Leavel’s sloshed Drowsy Chaperone. Or as the lady puts it in song, “Keep your eyeball on the highball.”

My own favorite big number, however, is performed by Troy Britton Johnson’s romantic lead and former All Bright Toothpaste spokesperson, Robert Martin (no relation to Bob Martin who plays Man in Chair). For reasons that are a little too complicated to explain here, our smitten hero is roller-skating blindfolded in the park while singing a ballad entitled “Accident Waiting to Happen.”

It had me on the floor with laughter. Yet the song he sings is lovely (and very witty):

I’m an accident waiting to happen

I’m a mishap about to ensue

I’m the toy on the stair

The three-legged chair

The hem that’s been caught by a shoe.

As we stumble along nowadays on Broadway, The Drowsy Chaperone is, quite simply, the tonic we’ve all been waiting for. In the desperate jukebox era of Jersey Boys, may it win every Tony Award in sight.