Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Drowsy Chaperone

I’d intended to see “The Drowsy Chaperone” in previews, but life intervened. I have spent many happy hours listening to the CD. But yesterday I finally made it to the matinee. I also had an ulterior motive: I’ve been meeting with a composer about a new musical, and he’d suggested that I see it to look at the structure. The libretto hasn’t been published yet, so I must rely on memory and the Playbill.

The structure is ingenious. What tends to be the biggest problem with old musicals, and the older it is, the bigger the problem is? The books are a big snore; c.f. David Henry Hwang rewriting “Flower Drum Song” (though I think that was more a race problem than a boring issue); David Ives tinkering with old libretti for the “Encores!” series. How do we know most of these old musicals? Anything before “Oklahoma!” we know from reproductions, partial recordings (I grew up with eight songs from “Lady in the Dark” on an RCA reissue; it’s the original Broadway cast, but leaves out giant sections, including Danny Kaye singing “Tchaikovsky,” and barely begins to do service to the intricacies of Kurt Weill’s orchestrations) or individual songs. “Oklahoma!” was the first original cast album.

So what do librettists Bob Martin and Don McKellar do? They stretch the truth a little. Say that original cast albums did exist in the 1920s, what if we build a show around one of them? And this show has set pieces that are intrinsic to musicals of that time. There’s an old rich lady, Mrs. Tottendale; who has an estate with many servants and a butler, Underling; a follies showgirl, Janet Van De Graaff; the guy who runs the follies, Feldzieg, who has an intellectually challenged chorine girlfriend, Kitty; a wealthy juvenile, Robert Martin, with a best friend, George; and Janet’s chaperone (“champagne makes me drowsy”), the Drowsy Chaperone. They even manage to work in the most exciting technological advance of the 1920s with Trix the Aviatrix, and two gangsters (who wouldn’t be at all out of place in “Kiss Me, Kate”).

All of these characters and their antics live in Man in the Chair’s studio apartment, because that’s where the record player is. The action is driven by the record album itself; the Man in the Chair gives us comment on and the context of the show. It doesn’t feel forced or weird (well, it took me a minute to adjust to the action happening I the apartment, but once the refrigerator opened up, I felt at home).

Danny Burstein is hilarious as Aldolpho, as is Beth Leavel as the title character; Troy Britton Johnson and Patrick Wetzel do a great tap number, true to the period and mesmerizing. I regret not having seen Georgia Engel and Edward Hibbert in their original roles. Jo Anne Worley basically does Jo Anne Worley (where a lighter touch to the comedy might have been helpful), and Peter Bartlett appears to be trying to channel Hibbert. I've tried to include a photo, but Blogger keeps rejecting my .gif.

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