The Drowsy Chaperone
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 4, 2006
I love to go to the theatre.
The protagonist of The Drowsy Chaperone, a pathetic fellow known simply as Man in Chair who is alone on stage sitting in what appears to be his living room, tells us before he tells us anything else that he hates to go to the theatre; right away I wondered what he and I might have in common. More to the point, I wondered what Bob Martin, Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert, and Greg Morrison and I might have in common; they are the creators of this new musical (the first two wrote the book, the latter two did the songs), a perfunctory and entirely shallow affair with pretensions toward post-modern hipness that wants to be as many different things to as many different people as possible. The answer to my query turns out to be: not much.
Ok, here's one thing we all seem to agree on: Man in Chair gripes almost immediately in his opening monologue about how much he dislikes it when characters in shows break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. Our reaction is supposed to be: ha ha—he's breaking the fourth wall himself, talking to us! How hilariously and hiply self-aware this is! Or something to that effect.
Oops—sorry: my reaction was: Who is this guy? Why is he talking to me and what does he think I'm doing in his living room? And y'see, Bob and Don and Lisa and Greg and Man in Chair have all lost me, immediately. I never bought in to their would-be ironic conceit. Instead I got increasingly annoyed as they trashed Elton John and Les Miserables and Miss Saigon and Cats; yeah, that's a cool thing to do because nobody likes any of them. And I got confused as Man in Chair started to rhapsodize about one of his favorite musicals, a little ditty called "The Drowsy Chaperone" allegedly written in 1928 whose original cast LP (!) he likes to listen to...oh, look, he's going to put it on for us so we can hear it; oh, look, the whole show is materializing in his sad little living room.
A great deal of The Drowsy Chaperone is this "re-creation" of "The Drowsy Chaperone"—essentially a dozen musical numbers with some flimsy but convoluted plot wrapped around them purporting to be a vintage musical comedy. What are we to make of it? Neither a sweet-tempered valentine to bygone innocence/nostalgia nor a deft parody of same, it amounts to a dumbed-down and dopey mishmosh of old movie cliches and thinly barbed jabs at some more contemporary targets. There's nothing quintessentially '20s about it: some of the tunes approach the mindless naivete of, say, a Good News, but none of the performances ever do; and the jarring concatenation of hackneyed styles—here a Busby Berkeley-esque larger-than-life musical sequence (sans chorus girls) that almost works as a pastiche of early '30s Warner Brothers movies; there a weird star turn by our supposed leading lady who's wearing Ann Miller's hair, Judy Garland's pantsuit, and gesticulating and belting like a latter-day Liza Minnelli—well, they're scattershot, all over the map; taking no prisoners, and not particularly hitting any targets.
The big belly laugh of the evening comes when the lady of the house, a Mrs. Tottendale (played by a very underwhelming Georgia Engel in a bid for nostalgic star quality) repeatedly spits out her drink in the face of her butler, Underling (played by a seemingly ill-at-ease Edward Hibbert, slumming). Hilarious. Just like that famous '20s musical comedy starring...the Three Stooges.
Interspersed with this lame excuse for a show-within-a-show comes commentary by Man in Chair. I didn't get him either. He's got a thing for the leading man (indeed—and please pardon my lapse into vulgarity here, but I want to be clear—he apparently gets a hard-on just listening to this guy on the record). He sings along exuberantly with the leading lady. When the building superintendent turns up in his apartment and asks him if he likes musicals, in a moment of weird show-queen panic he emphatically denies it. But he's not gay or anything. He was married. He has issues.
I repeat: Huh?
If the creators of The Drowsy Chaperone had the courage of their convictions—if they appeared to have any convictions at all—they'd let Man in Chair run off with the super (who, being the one well-adjusted and normal presence on stage, easily admits to liking musicals). Or they'd let Man in Chair and us sink all the way into the delicious fantasy that this show might have been, dropping the self-aware posing and allowing us all to enjoy the sweet, drippy charm of a musical that actually deserves this fellow's affection, letting us feel that an ending in which our hero is whisked Wizard-of-Oz-like into the world of his favorite show is actually earned and wonderful instead of just pathetic.
If only they had believed...then I could believe.
But they don't. The Drowsy Chaperone is surely the only musical that tells its audience, frequently and in no uncertain terms, how great its score is, knocking the competition all the while; if Dame Edna were a musical comedy, this is the one she'd be. But this isn't shrewd satire: it's smug, dishonest, and as crass and cynical a creation as has ever found its way to the Broadway stage.
The package is disarmingly slick. Casey Nicholaw's direction and choreography look good (though there are many slack spots; the evening feels long). The cast, led by Sutton Foster (who has a great many fans, though I confess I am not among them) and Martin himself (as Man in Chair), do commendable work, but only that; the one really satisfying performance comes from Troy Britton Johnson who, as the toothy, empty-headed, handsome leading man, gets the tone and style of what he's satirizing precisely right. Beth Leavel is at sea playing the title character, a boozy amalgamation of, I don't know, Elaine Stritch and Bebe Daniels (but she's glorious when she gets to dance for a few moments); Danny Burstein is channeling Bert Lahr, I think, as her love interest, an offensive Latin-lover caricature named Aldolpho. Kecia Lewis-Evans is entirely wasted in what amounts to a cameo as Trix the Aviatrix.
Gregg Barnes's costumes are plentiful and eye-filling, at least until the faux intermission separating the "acts" of the show-within-the-show (The Drowsy Chaperone is performed without an actual intermission). Many of David Gallo's sets—which pop out of the walls, nooks, and cranies of Man in Chair's apartment—are stylish and/or ingenious.
But whatever talent is on display here has been squandered. The Drowsy Chaperone, mocking itself and its audience with the same aggressive eagerness as Spamalot, proves as sadly hollow as that enterprise, the important difference being that Spamalot knows what it is and admits it, while this show hides behind its deconstructionist pretense. Don't be fooled: Man In Chair hates to go to the theatre, sure; but Man In Chair is really Bob Martin, author of The Drowsy Chaperone, and he's thrilled to take your $110 right here on Broadway. As a forgotten but genuine '20s icon used to say: hello, sucker.