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The Drowsy Chaperone

This clever, laugh-filled new musical about musicals is the bee's knees. logo
Bob Martin and Beth Leavel in The Drowsy Chaperone
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Just after The Drowsy Chaperone begins, the musical comedy-loving narrator identified in the program as Man in Chair (Bob Martin) plays what is supposedly the original cast recording of a fictional '20s tuner called The Drowsy Chaperone. Instantly, the show materializes in the fellow's high-ceilinged Manhattan apartment with its gated windows. Quick as you can say "Fred and Adele Astaire," David Gallo's ingenious sets partly transform the drab dwelling into what is meant to be the various gilded rooms and frou-frou garden of a Long Island mansion.

Yes, I know. Here we have yet another musical about musicals, enterprises so numerous we now have words for them: "metamusicals" and "self-referential musicals." The notion of perpetrating such a production is about as fresh as Sunday's bagels -- from a Sunday in, say, 1948, when Carol Channing and her Lend an Ear colleagues spoofed Jazz-Age songfests in that show's "Gladiola Girl" sketch. During the past 10 years alone, we've had Urinetown: The Musical, The Producers, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Musical of Musicals, Spamalot and [title of show], all of which have sent up musical comedy conventions to one extent or another.

By now, we should be worn out by the subject, shouldn't we? Lucky for us, an extremely talented group has gamboled into town with a new musical about musicals. They're songwriters Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, librettists Bob Martin (who also gives an award-winning performance as Man in Chair) and Don McKellar, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, and an ensemble of performers so accomplished that you want to jump in the air and click your heels. The best new musical of the season has arrived, and it ought to keep audiences smiling, laughing, and clapping their mitts off for some time to come -- even folks who have only the faintest understanding of what '20s musicals were like.

They were like this one, but without the ironic edge. In The Drowsy Chaperone, the planned wedding of Broadway star Janet Van De Graaff (Sutton Foster) and playboy Robert Martin (Troy Britton Johnson) is threatened by an inane plot twist. It's also threatened by Broadway producer Feldzieg (Lenny Wolpe), who's worried about losing his star and certainly doesn't want to replace her with his bimbo girlfriend, Kitty (Jennifer Smith). Dotty old Mrs. Tottendale (Georgia Engel), owner of the home where the nuptials are to be held, has only the vaguest idea of what's happening, although her proper butler, Underling (Edward Hibbert), keeps conscientious tabs on the proceedings. Others float and flit through, notably Janet's drowsy (read "drunk") chaperone (Beth Leavel)

While mocking the musical comedy formula, the Drowsy Chaperone crew supplies laugh upon laugh and clever number after clever number, some of which will knock your eyes out. The most rousing of these is probably Janet's "Show Off," in which, while changing from one Gregg Barnes costume to another, the glamoricious Foster displays such chirping-and-terping skill that she eclipses her own delightful turns in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Little Women.

The creators have structured their intermissionless, 85-minute whopper so adroitly that everyone in the ensemble gets an opportunity to sparkle in the spotlight (lighting design by Ken Billington and Brian Monahan). So you won't find preferences expressed here for Leavel over Engel, or Hibbert over Eddie Korbich (as the hero's best man), or Danny Burstein (as the lothario Adolpho) over Johnson. All are equal to but not better than Garth Kravits and Jason Kravits as two thugs impersonating pastry chefs. In their synchronized vaudevillian movements, these lads recall -- for those who know their trivia -- Teddy Hart and Jimmy Savo in the original cast of The Boys From Syracuse. Here's a nonpareil musical-comedy cast being put through its paces by a fountain-of-whimsy director.

For reasons that are quickly explained, The Drowsy Chaperone starts in the dark, with Man in Chair expounding on musicals old and new. ("Please, Elton John," he bleats, "must we continue this charade?") But nobody is kept in the dark for long about what's afoot. Some may even suspect that the writers have something on their collective minds beyond sheer entertainment; they do seem to be commenting on the ineffable, inexplicable underpinnings of love. Not profound thoughts, but thoughts all the same. And in the gleeful, obscure-fact-dispensing Man in Chair, they're honoring the so-called "show queen" type that's so often the butt of sitcom jokes.

The Drowsy Chaperone is founded on a slender thread of a premise that I feel duty-bound to report: Man in Chair claims that he's playing an original cast album but, for a musical that supposedly opened in 1928, there is almost no likelihood that a recording of "the full show with the original cast" would exist. Still, so what? Premises for musicals, especially '20s musical, have habitually been as thin as Foster in her finery -- and few have been so utterly the bee's knees as The Drowsy Chaperone.

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