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The Drowsy Chaperone

The Drowsy Chaperone is an extraordinarily vibrant solution to the problem of what to do with Broadway's troupes of highly talented musical comedians in an unstylish age. Resuscitating the old chestnuts, as both Girl Crazy and Crazy For You showed, doesn't really work: the old shows - every musical by Cole Porter written before 1948's Kiss Me, Kate, for example - are dramatically lame. Truth to tell, the audiences of the Twenties and Thirties demanded much less of musical comedy than we do. So where are today's vehicles for divas as endowed as, say, Sutton Foster?

Thoroughly Modern Millie - the last show that we saw at the Marquis, and the last time that we saw Ms Foster - was a merely adequate solution. The songs were thoroughly forgettable, and it was hardly more possible to care about the cardboard characters, exhumed as they were from shows that David Merrick wouldn't have considered backing. The show got by on youthful cheek and charm. It ran much longer than I thought it would. Harriet Harris was great in the Bea Lillie role, especially when she wore that outfit in a huge red dragon print (she did, didn't she?). Otherwise...

I expected The Drowsy Chaperone to be much the same. But people talked about it with a different kind of enthusiasm. They hadn't just enjoyed the show, they'd liked it. Eventually, I decided that we had to see it, and I'm glad that we did, because it is a very special, and deeply moving, musical. Perhaps the most moving musical ever.

Once upon a time, gay men had to behave just like straight men. This was tough, needless to say, and it naturally created an underground world, one in which gay men could behave like themselves, whatever that might mean. In fact, there were countless undergrounds, many of them quite solitary. Not a few men found release in original-cast recordings of Broadway shows. The shows themselves, of course, were largely innocent of homosexual innuendo, but who's to stop a guy from mouthing along with Ethel Merman in the privacy of his own bedroom? Perhaps even singing, and waving hands?

When I was young, there was a type of man that I don't recall anyone's calling "musical comedy queen." These men knew all the shows. They knew the shows, they knew the stars... sometimes, there was no limit to their knowledge. And this knowledge was matched only by their proselytizing zeal. Here, I must confess that I know what they felt. The imperative to "share" the music that I liked - actually a search for congenial people - made a colossal bore of me for many years. "Here! You must listen to this! This next bit - yes, here! Isn't that GREAT!" But how could anyone have heard a thing, what with all of my chattery commentary? I, too, inhabited a somewhat solitary underground, loving serious music as a teenager in the suburban wilderness. But unlike the musical comedy queens (or most of them), I was able to get a job that harnessed my passion for music and eventually put an end to the need to "share." (And nowadays, of course, I can share on the Internet without being a bore - you can take it or leave it at your pleasure.)

In The Drowsy Chaperone, an unnamed musical comedy queen ("Man in Chair") insists on taking us through his (very unlikely) complete recording of the 1928 show of the same name. The Drowsy Chaperone of 2006 is about this man, and his relation to musical comedy and to the world. He is as coy about being gay as a very daring homosexual might have been in the Fifties. We are all in on the code now, of course, so this coyness is both funny and touching. As the show goes along, he tells us bits and pieces about himself. He has actually been married, if not for long, and his mother seems to have been a bit of a diva herself. Now he lives in a studio apartment with braces on the windows and a comfy but well-worn armchair stationed next to a phonograph. The second thing that The Drowsy Chaperone is about is the playing of phonograph records.

Surely nothing is more annoying than records getting stuck, hiccupping the same usually senseless phrase over and over again while you dash to the turntable. Seeing a record get stuck. however, is hilarious. At least twice, as I recall, the brilliant cast of The Drowsy Chaperone simulated this pestilential side-effect of the vinyl era. And then, in the middle of the rousing finale, the power went out. The most sensational record-playing imbroglio came at the beginning of the "second act." The Drowsy Chaperone is played without interruption, but the 1928 version had an intermission, of course, and while the "curtain" is down, our cicerone munches on a power bar while complaining about the awfulness of being brought down from the plane of fantasy and into a room full of tourists - not, by the way, the show's biggest laugh, not by a long shot. When he is through with the power bar (and this take, hilariously, forever) he puts on Side Three of the original cast album - and announces that he has to pee. (What was intermission for, you idiot?) The curtain goes up, but on an elaborate Chinese set, with a Chinese-opera emperor and a slim Western lady who takes after Audrey Hepburn in one of Cecil Beaton's larger My Fair Lady chapeaux. There's a silly song about why Asians fascinate Caucasians, but we don't get to hear all of it because of course it's from another show, Message From a Nightingale. Our host rushes on stage and lifts the arm from the phonograph. The players walk offstage disconsolate and lifeless, and The Drowsy Chaperone resumes. We have been treated to a very characteristic boo-boo of the playing-records experience.

The whole show-within-the-show never quite leaves the apartment of Man in Chair. Much of it is often disguised, with grand staircases and poolside draperies, but the chair and the phonograph are always upstage right. It is always clear that The Drowsy Chaperone of 1928 is being mediated by a rather sad, middle-aged homosexual who admits to never having seen the show. (How could he have done? He's not that old.) At the very end, while the actors stand frozen in their smiles while their dramaturge insists that the whole experience of sharing the musical with us has been ruined by a brief power outage, The Drowsy Chaperone of 1928 begins to mediate our host. One of the actors turns to listen to Man in Chair (who is very much not in his chair), and the next thing you know, somebody not really dressed for the occasion is flying off to Rio in some very glamorous company. It's The Wizard of Oz for grownups.

As for the musical concoction, it is a delightful parody that highlights the silliness of the old shows, and makes sure that you know what they were, just in case you didn't. In short, its an extension of Man in Chair. If the lyrics linger in the mind, the tunes don't, but that doesn't really matter. The point here is that a musical comedy enthusiast is bound to be crazy about a few featureless shows. (I know, because I can't get anybody to sit through Happy Hunting.) Three numbers stand out. First is Sutton Foster's bravura retirement number, in which her character announces that, now that she's going to marry a millionaire, she no longer wants to "Show Off." In which she does nothing but, from playing the glasses to balancing plates on poles to doing splits to singing high C. Never has the ruthlessness of the actor's desire to perform been more amusingly exposed. In "As We Stumble Along," the drowsy chaperone - yes, there is one, although she's definitely not suited to the part, having obviously been Vera Charles's drama teacher and life coach (Beth Leavel) - brings down the house with torchy determination - "As we stumble, bumble, fumble....plumble alooooong." And then there's "Toledo Surprise," featuring real-life brothers, Jason and Garth Kravitz, playing diminutive gangsters dressed in plus fours and chef's toques. Everybody can dance. Because it's August and I'm on vacation, I'm rather unprofessionally going to refer you to the show's Web site for the Who's Who, but I must praise Bob Martin to the skies. He is not only the surprisingly engaging Man in Chair but a co-author of the book, and, I suspect, the genius behind the very concept of The Drowsy Chaperone. He and his colleague, Don McKellar, give us a tantalizing idea of what, by virtue of the fact that we're here and not in Toronto, we New Yorkers might be missing.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a superb theatrical bonbon, its bittersweet nougat wrapped in a scrumptious coating. (August 2006)

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