When you first hear about this new musical, “The Drowsy Chaperone,” you wonder: Why would anyone want to make a 1920s style musical in 2005–take us back instead of pushing us forward in theatrical history. This delightful little musical making its U.S. premiere at the Ahmanson in downtown Los Angeles does manage to bring us a supposedly old style musical and make it fresh by deconstructing it.
The music by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison is mostly forgettable–not wonderfully hummable or even one of those catchy tunes that will run endlessly, unmercifully through your head for days. Yet the book by Bob Martin and Don McKeller is utterly charming. Martin also plays “the man in the chair.” He is both a spectator to the action of the musical and a participant and in that role, he is like a chatty, slightly fey bachelor uncle.
We first hear his voice under the cover of darkness, once the audience has hushed waiting for the play to begin. One at first thinks this is the Ahmanson’s creative way of telling us to turn off our cell phones, but the monologue goes on and on. When the lights finally come on, we see that rather than being in a grand mansion, we are in an old apartment that doesn’t even separate the kitchen from the living room. Martin plays a self-deprecating divorced man who lives alone and today is going to listen to an LP (yes, a record) of one of his favorite musicals: “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
What follows is that the characters slowly invade the apartment and the apartment slowly transforms into a grand mansion. Our narrator never leaves us and watches most of the action, supplying the kind of catty comments you might hear if you were sitting with a more knowing friend who’s introducing you to a new musical. He answers the questions that might be lingering in your head. Want to know whatever happened to the star playing a certain part? Our narrator lets us know, at times meandering off onto wild tangents related to his own life.
The 1920s was the Golden Age of Broadway. Musicals introduced American audiences to songwriters and composers that are stil considered master of American pop music: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II and Cole Porter. Yet the style of the musical was only nominally dependent upon the plot. The musical comedy had evolved to showcase various performers who just got up and performed the act or characterization that they specialized in. You didn’t really ask the Marx Brothers to be anything else but themselves. The same could be said for W.C. Field, Fanny Brice and Fred Astaire (who was dancing with this sister Adele).
The plot of the musical is well-worn: A theatrical star (Sutton Foster) is giving up the stage to marry a handsome and rich young man (Troy Britton Johnson) after a brief courtship. His best man, George (Eddie Korbich), well-practiced at this role. The star’s producer (Lenny Wolpe) with a chorus girl hoping to take the star billing (Jennifer Smith) has some to thwart the marriage. Two gangsters (Jason and Garth Kravits) are there to help, representing backers of his shows. They encourage the stereotypical Latin lover, Aldolpho (Danny Burstein) to seduce the star. In a case of mistaken, Aldopho seduces the eponyous drowsy chaperone (Beth Leavel). There’s also the ditzy, senile Mrs. Tottendale (Georgia Engel) and her butler (Edward Hibbert).
A lot of the comedy comes from the side bits. Our narrator tells us that the star is played by a rising young actress while the chaperone is played by an established actress. When the meta-play continues we see the chaperone continually attempting to upstage our ingenue.
This production, under the direction and choreography of Casey Nicholaw, moves swiftly and remains as light and airy as French pastry. This musical won’t make you think, it doesn’t make a statement. It’s more like a sweet valetine to the musicals of yesteryear. It only means to entertain and make you laugh–two things this production does quite successfully.