Manhattan Transcript: Why The Drowsy Chaperone Might Have Done Well on the Air

Well, there I was this afternoon, walking Montague, our terrier, and picking sloes along the lane near our house halfway up in the Welsh hills. I was walking him in order to get to the sloes, truth be told. Unlike Montague, though, the sloes won’t be seen again until Christmas, as I learned, much to my dismay, after having spent half an hour pricking them. I had heard of a Sloe Gin some time ago; but I always assumed it to be spelled “slow” and work as fast as the regular kind. Now I know that my ear hadn’t led me altogether astray, considering that it will take so long to appreciate this potent concoction. At any rate, a predilection for booze is something I share with that celebrated Broadway dame known as The Drowsy Chaperone, who may currently be seen failing her charge in the Tony Award-winning “Musical Within a Comedy” of the same name, a show that reminded me of my love not only for stiff drinks but old-fashioned radio drama.

I might not have learned about The Drowsy Chaperone had it not been for some of my New York City pals, some of whom work in the theater. Now, Broadway isn’t exactly “My Beat.” As much as I enjoy “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” (a West End Sound of Musicaudition-turned-TV reality show starring Andrew Lloyd Webber presently unfolding on BBC television), I am rather selective in my choice of musical treats. I would not be caught dead watching Cats, to be sure, and have refused to attend a performance of Phantom even when a close friend of mine was one of its featured actors on Broadway. A few years ago, I enjoyed Drowsy Chaperone‘s leading lady Sutton Foster in a revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie, and her presence, as long as it does not remind me of Leslie Caron (as indeed it sometimes does), suffices to make me shell out some $75, the highest price I have yet paid for a TKTS ticket, to see a show that is rather an amusing trifle than a certified classic.

Now, on that particular night (the date of which you may glean from the ticket displayed above), Ms. Foster was rather subdued and lackluster. Too bad, considering that her “Show Off” routine is the smartest number in the whole production, which opens with Mary Tyler Moore alumna Gloria Engel going on about her “Fancy Dress,” a tune that is insipid rather than comically inspired. Worse still, the eponymous character (the Drowsy one) was played by an understudy, as that dreaded white slip in my Playbill informed me. Understudy, in this case, meant second best. Luckily, the same was not true for the whole production.

There is a self-reflexivity about The Drowsy Chaperone that is so subtle and commercially slick as to render this musical comedy charming rather than clever. In fact, the play struck me as decidedly dumb—in a manner that ingratiates instead of irritates. The smartest thing about it all is the opening of the play and its concept. After all, The Drowsy Chaperone begins in utter darkness, with the voice of a middle-aged Broadway aficionado (who, traditionally, does not speak in a booming baritone) telling you about the costly experience of going to the theater these days before sharing a record (vinyl, no less) from his collection of show tunes.

One of those forgotten gems is The Drowsy Chaperone, the forgotten (and entirely fictional) 1929 musical our host (the “Man in a Chair”) has never seen but imagined often enough sitting in front of his outmoded home entertainment system and listening to an old and not altogether groove-proof record in his rundown New York City apartment. As he tells the audience about the show, the impressions made by the recording come to life and The Drowsy Chaperone materializes before us as it presumably might come alive in our MC’s mind. Of course, for seventy-five bucks or more, we demand to see our theater. Most of us go to a Broadway show for sheer dazzle, not dialectics. We rely on Off-off Broadway for the subversive and provocative—and the clear demarcation makes it easy for most to avoid such intellectual challenges.

And yet, nothing I saw onstage quite matched the excitement or warranted the enthusiasm of that middle-aged man (wonderfully portrayed by Bob Martin), an unassuming cardigan-clad homebody whose visions, no doubt, were more potent than anything devised by the set designers of this show. I wonder how theatregoers might have reacted had the scene been cast in darkness for the entire eighty-odd minutes (a short enough time for a Broadway play). They might have concurred with the guy.

Aside from “Show Off,” “Accident Waiting to Happen” and the surprising “Message from a Nightingale,” The Drowsy Chaperone wasn’t all that much to look at. Then again, who would pay this much for a single radio play? The eyes had it, as usual—but they did not quite have their fill . . .

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