How many times has a Fringe show ended up on the stage of the Ordway? Well, at least once. Following its origins as a bachelor party entertainment , the musical The Drowsy Chaperone had an early incarnation as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival. The show betrays its Fringe roots in its general irreverence and outrageousness, but is now clothed in the guise of a big Broadway production.
This is a completely original show. “Original” is not a word you often hear applied to Broadway musicals these days, not in this era of movie adaptations and bloated Disney extravaganzas. But The Drowsy Chaperone is fresh and innovative, even though it trades heavily on 1920s nostalgia.
When the curtain rises, a musical comedy queen, identified only as Man in Chair, is sitting in his armchair, contemplating his old, original cast recording of the 1928 musical The Drowsy Chaperone. It’s a two-disc set of the entire show. (He enthusiastically shows off the jacket to the audience.) When he puts it on the turntable, the show comes to life right there in his kitchen.
The record is one of the running gags of the show. When the phone rings and he lifts the needle, the actors freeze. When the disc skips or repeats, it is reflected in the action. And when he puts the wrong record on, well, to tell would be to spoil it. Suffice it to say, it’s one of the highlights in a show full of highlights. The physical comedy is all carried off with great flair.
Man in Chair enthusiastically shares his arcane knowledge of the show, filling in all the background, reviewing the performances as they are happening, even giving us the warped performance histories of all the actors. Was there ever a more ingenious means of deconstructing a genre? His reflections might be obsessive, but they are also expressions of genuine love and bona fide wit.
The show itself is total fluff—as musicals of that period (with the very real exception of Showboat) absolutely were. Who can remember the plots of Gershwin or Porter shows? They were interchangeable. This one is the story of a wedding that almost doesn’t happen, but of course it does—along with a number of other romantic entanglements. But Bob Martin and Don McKellar’s book is full of enough really good gags, puns, and double entendres to carry it along.
It’s the songs that were the heart of those period shows, and the ones here by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison are tuneful and charming, a perfect evocation of the eras—from the tap number, where the dancers actually set the stage on fire, to the romantic ballads, to a tango number. The stage effects accompanying these numbers are not only spectacular, they are also quite inventive. The way they suggest an airplane taking off is a delight.
For all the spectacle of the show within a show, it is Jonathan Crombie, as Man in Chair, who walks away with the evening. Amidst all the artifice, he is a human being, wonderfully funny, but even more wonderfully real. His touching performance hits all the right notes. When he moved into the playing area and began mimicking the performer, I almost wept. How else can a true musical comedy aficionado enjoy an original cast album except by playing along? In his wide-eyed eagerness and enthusiasm, he was completely endearing.
The rest of the cast was also quite strong, creating an effective ensemble. A real treat was seeing Georgia Engel, playing the same role (Ted’s girlfriend, Georgette) that she did on The Mary Tyler Moore Show thirty years ago. The standouts were Andrea Chamberlain and Mark Ledbetter as the ingénue and juvenile—along with Nancy Opel, who was delightful as the title character.
The Drowsy Chaperone won Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score, but not for Best Musical. Even hypothetically, that’s hard to understand. I mean, how can you have the best script and best songs, but not be the best show? It’s even more perplexing after you’ve seen the show. The Drowsy Chaperone is the most clever, most joyful—and, thanks to Crombie, sweetest—musical to come from Broadway in quite some time.
The Drowsy Chaperone continues at the Ordway through March 30.