Dizzy deconstruction: Crombie in The
PHOTO: B.A. Nilsson
B. A. Nilsson
and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, book by Bob
Martin and Don McKellar, directed by Casey Nicholaw
Proctor’s Theatre, Nov. 20
when Porter and Gershwin and Kern were cranking out their
early scores and Fred Astaire was a stage star only, the American
musical had a daffy innocence that took the European operetta
conventions of mistaken identity and social-status conflicts,
added a dollop of racial stereotyping, and rolled it into
a tuneful romp.
Could escapism be any more compelling, with live actors singing
and dancing their way through their problems? Not as far as
one lonely apartment-dweller is concerned. Referred to only
as the Man in Chair, he draws inspiration from a scratchy
LP of a musical devised nearly 80 years ago. This musical
is, of course, The Drowsy Chaperone, boasting a cast
of vintage stars whose lives are of just as much interest
to the Man in Chair as is the show itself.
He sits in an overstuffed armchair in his cluttered urban
apartment, and addresses us in the wry tones of one whose
loneliness has long been leavened with wit. Musical theater
is his salvation, and he wants to share with us this long-forgotten
show. And so, easing his record player’s tonearm into the
opening grooves of side one, he notes the familiar crackle—and
then the rousing overture. Soon enough, the sound transforms
into the music of a live orchestra, and the apartment is invaded
by the high-stepping cast.
Drowsy Chaperone is a high-concept show, but it mines
the concept wonderfully. Jonathan Crombie’s performance as
the Man in Chair is gloriously funny. He reveals, through
a dizzying cascade of gossip about his favorite show, his
disappointments in life, making the solace he finds in this
musical all the more compelling.
The musical’s cartoon characters seem all the more cartoony
as they invade the Man’s apartment (I especially liked the
leading man’s entrance through the refrigerator door). There’s
Janet, the self-absorbed leading lady (Andrea Chamberlain),
who is forsaking a successful stage career to marry handsome,
ardent Robert (Mark Ledbetter). There’s the imperious producer,
Feldzieg (Cliff Bemis), and Kitty (Marla Mindelle), his airheaded
The original Broadway production featured real-life brothers
as a pair of gangsters who, posing as pastry chefs, are charged
with stopping the wedding. Brothers Paul and Peter Riopelle
were featured in this tour, stealing their way through their
scenes, although they were matched in terms of exuberant energy
by James Moye as overblown professional Latin lover Aldolpho,
complete with a white streak down the middle of his slick
The title character would have been an Aline MacMahon role
in its day. Here, the versatile Nancy Opel plays the tippling
chaperone who sings the showstopping anthem “As We Stumble
Along” even as she triggers the token mistaken-identity subplot.
Although the musical kicks off with a rousing opening, for
me the real kick comes early on when best-man George (Richard
Vida) tapdances through the number “Cold Feet,” his virtuosity
soon matched when Ledbetter’s Robert joins in. By the end
of it, the stage literally is smoking, one of many over-the-top
effects that works because so much of the show is played at
This is no surprise coming from director-choreographer Casey
Nicholaw, who masterminded the footwork in Spamalot.
It’s easy for a production like this to slip into mere silliness,
which palls quickly, but Nicholaw never lets his actors lose
sight of the sincerity at the heart of this show. Improbable
as it all is, we want to believe in the sheer fun of it, and
this we’re encouraged to do.
Characters in vintage musicals often worked in pairs or trios,
in roles written for vaudeville teams. That’s the provenance,
our Man in Chair explains, of the roles of the vacant Mrs.
Tottendale and her butler, Underling. She was Ukulele Lil,
and of course produces that instrument by the show’s finale.
Georgia Engel originated the role on Broadway, and her performance
is a low-key delight, well matched by Robert Dorfman’s weary,
The score, by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, is an amiable
pastiche of jazz-era song styles, and the lyrics, while they
rarely reach the wit level of Porter or Hart, are nicely crafted
and draw plenty of laughs.
Few actual ’20s-era musicals see the light of day anymore.
Perhaps this is the most effective way to resurrect that spirit.
It certainly inspired a clever, im mensely entertaining show
with showstopping performances all over the place.
While we may not share the Man in Chair’s deconstructionist
dilemma or waltz into our own living-room musical, we can
parlay enjoyment of this show into an unembarrassed celebration
of vintage musicals—those bubbly wonders created before special
effects took over the stage.