Review: `The Drowsy Chaperone’

Opened July 23, 2008 at the Orpheum Theatre

The cast of The Drowsy Chaperone joins stage star Janet Van De Graaff (Andrea Chamberlain, center, leg in air) in the show stopper “Show Off.” The Tony Award-winning musical is at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. Photos by Joan Marcus

Shadows hover over daffy, delightful `Drowsy’
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Musicals don’t come much sweeter than The Drowsy Chaperone.

The little Canadian musical that began life as a wedding present and then blossomed in to a 2006 Tony Award-winning hit is on the road and is now at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season.

For a frothy musical, it’s fairly high concept. A nameless man in a chair (a completely charming Jonathan Crombie, below) attempts to stave of his miserable life for a while by listening to a favorite original cast album.

“I hate the theater,” he mutters in the darkness as the show begins. He then proceeds to tell us how modern musicals are dull and dreary and overblown and that his greatest pleasure in life has been from gorgeous, silly musicals of yore. To make his point, he pulls out some classic vinyl: the 1928 score for Gable and Stein’s The Drowsy Chaperone starring Jane Roberts, the “Oops Girl” and venerable British actress Beatrice Stockwell before she was made a dame.

It’s a complete fiction, of course, invented for the purposes of this musical, but the fake show’s authenticity is half the fun as it begins to unspool in the man’s dingy studio apartment with ongoing commentary from the man, who is in musical theater heaven while the music plays, and only occasional interruptions from the ghastly real world.

Crafted in vintage ’28 style, the musical numbers of The Drowsy Chaperone, with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, are light and airy, funny and forgettable – in other words, just right. As the Man in the Chair says, musicals should help one “escape the dreary horrors of the real world.” And this is a musical that does…to a point.

While the silliness of “Drowsy” trills and tap dances along its merry way, book writers Bob Martin and Don McKellar (two of the brains behind the brilliant Canadian TV series “Slings and Arrows”) sneak in some welcome depth through the character of the Man in the Chair. That’s not to say this is heavy going, but this is mindless entertainment with a mind.

Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw brings a precise knowledge of old-fashioned musical theater to the production that keeps the effervescence bubbling and the charm churning. As the man’s record turns, his apartment becomes more and more overlaid with the country estate sets (by David Gallo), and Ken Billington and Brian Monahan’s lights become more fantastical and beautiful.

We’re never fully caught up in the story of the silly musical – a great follies star is about to forsake the stage to marry an oil tycoon and her producer and the producer’s mafia connections fear that losing their star will mean losing their fortunes – because the Man in the Chair keeps pulling us back.

In his oversized sweater and threadbare corduroys, the Man weaves in and out of the musical theater stars, sometimes pausing the record so he can tell us that this actor was eventually found dead in his apartment, but not until five days after his actual death and his body had been partially consumed by his poodles.

“Try not to think about the poodles,” the Man says before the actor begins a song.

The Man also gives us glimpses of his real life – his failed marriage (he didn’t know how to stop it from starting), his Zoloft addiction and his hermetic, anti-social ways. This is a man who, for all his charm, is lost to the world. He may love musicals, but they’re really just a patch on his concerns about, among other things, pornography and global warming.

But that’s what makes The Drowsy Chaperone more interesting than other retro-musicals such as No No Nanette or Sugar Babies.

And then there’s the energy of the high-spirited cast. The touring show features some standout musical performers, namely Andrea Chamberlain as stage star Janet Van De Graaff (her showstopper “Show Off” lives up to its name), Georgia Engel (Georgette from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) as loopy Mrs. Tottendale and Mark Ledbetter as the tap-dancing, roller-skating groom.

I was a little disappointed in Nancy Opel’s take on Janet’s chaperone, a boozy Brit with the requisite inspirational anthem about alcoholism (“As We Stumble Along”). Opel has a sharp, shrill voice and comic chops that stop just short of being hilarious. She’s funny, but just not quite enough.

The same is true for Dale Hensley as Italian lover Aldolpho. It’s tricky to play a bad actor and be funny doing it, and Hensley is far from a bad actor; he’s just not quite big enough –metaphorically speaking – for this goof of a character.

It’s hard to complain about anything when a show is this much fun. The Drowsy Chaperone, which runs under two hours without an intermission, is lovely and lively with real-world shadows lurking at the edges and threatening to spoil all the fun.

Here’s a little taste of Drowsy Chaperone:


Mark McKinney: From Kids to `Arrows’

Mark McKinney (above right) spent last Saturday night onstage at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theatre with his fellow Kids in the Hall: Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald and Scott Thompson. The Canadian comedians were the deserving subjects of a SketchFest tribute.

Though he’s best known for his Kids characters — the Chicken Lady, the “I’m crushing your head” guy — the 48-year-old McKinney has been racking up some impressive post-Kids credits.
Most notably, McKinney helped create and write one of the best series to appear on TV in a long time. “Slings & Arrows,” the story of a fictional Canadian theater festival — the New Burbage Theatre Festival, to be exact — and its attempts to woo movie stars to appear onstage, to survive in difficult economic times and to breathe some life into Shakespeare.

McKinney also starred in the show as the company’s managing director, Richard Smith-Jones, who evolved over the course of the series’ three seasons from awkward businessman to thriving artist as he discovered his calling in life: to direct of musicals.

The complete “Slings & Arrows” series comes out in a DVD box set on Feb. 5 (Acorn Media, $59.99).

On the phone from his home, McKinney says the “Slings & Arrows” experience rates “really high” in his varied show business career.

“I got to act and write. It was a steep learning curve in every way,” he says. “As a writer I was developing themes about things I’ve always wanted to be creative about. And as an actor, I was playing a straight but comic role.”

The role of Richard wasn’t created for McKinney. He and his fellow writers, Susan Coyne (who played Anna, Richard’s beleaguered secretary in the series) and Bob Martin (who co-wrote and starred in the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone) put the first season together, then McKinney had to audition for the role.

“Our director, Peter Wellington, wanted to see a bunch of people,” McKinney says. “He saw a lot of good actors. There was a lot of competition.”

It’s hard, now, to imagine anyone but McKinney in the role, as Richard takes a roundabout (and very funny) route from business to art.

Each season focused on the theater company’s major Shakespeare production. In the first season, it’s Hamlet (with guest star Rachel McAdams); in the second, it’s Macbeth and in the third, King Lear (with guest stars Sarah Polley and William Hutt in one of his final performances).

“Somewhere there’s a famous romantic trope that you keep youth in the foreground and age in the background,” McKinney explains. “That’s what we did: We completed a triangle. We went from youth to age in three seasons. From the beginning, Bob and Susan and I were ready to tell war stories. We found it was time to ask ourselves: What have we been doing?”

Though McKinney has been busy since his Kids in the Hall days — he was a story editor, then a recurring character on Aaron Sorkin’s NBC flop “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” — he says when you hit 40, you have kids and you’ve “been successful without becoming catastrophically rich,” it’s time for assessment.

“You’re going to PTA meetings, and you realize the sexiness of being the leather-pants-wearing actor has worn off,” McKinney says. “The things that interested you at 20 haven’t all deserted you as you become less nihilistic, but they have begun to be replaced by deeper things.”

McKinney says he and Coyne and Martin would like to collaborate on a new project, but “Slings & Arrows” will always be special.

“This series brought me a lot of rich rewards,” he says. “Some projects are fun and fabulous, but you’re the same person before and after. This one was a life changer.”

Comparing his “Slings and Arrows” experience with his “Studio 60” experience, McKinney says “Slings” was a “life evolution that traversed a whole bunch of personal stuff I was going through and adapted to.” The “Studio 60” experience was “wonderful. I loved pulling up to the Warner Bros. lot every day. At first I was a story editor, then, half-way through, Aaron put me in the cast.”

Fans are still grieving the loss of “Studio 60,” McKinney says. “People come up to me all the time and tell me it was their favorite thing on TV. I apologize for its cancellation, we curse and spit on the ground and grouse about networks and money — mammon. I really wish that show had been on cable. On HBO it wouldn’t have had to capture such a large consensus.”

With the writers’ strike ongoing, McKinney and his fellow Kids in the Hall have talked seriously about a tour in the spring.

“We figure if we wait too much longer, we’ll all get too gouty,” he says. “We got together recently in Montreal and wrote some original material, which scared the pants off me. If we go out on the road, half of the material we do will be new.”

McKinney says the Kids have always loved playing San Francisco: “There are about five cities we do really well in, and that’s one. That first tour, we felt like the fat Beatles.”

Twenty years on, the Kids are all getting along. “When we were younger, we had arms to throw punches around,” McKinney says. “Getting back together in Montreal, we finally had universal appreciation for each other and what we’ve done together. It was fun and really special.”

And now for a treat: My favorite McKinney character is the Chicken Lady (her daddy was a farmer, and her mama was a hen). Here she is at a strip show:

Greasing the Arrow, etc.

True to my word, I didn’t watch the oily reality TV sludge known as “Grease: You’re the One That I Want” on Sunday night, even though it’s a long holiday weekend with nothing better to do. I did catch up with some Monday morning quarterbacking on the previous night’s episode, and it seems that Jason (our local San Mateo native) is gone, along with brunette Laura. They should consider themselves lucky.

Fans of the show — people who actually like it — were complaining bitterly on message boards about the screaming, ridiculous audience, comparing them to 13-year-olds at a Justin Timberlake concert. I also liked that someone said that Austin (the guy we saw on tour as Link in Hairspray, right) was too gay porn star to be Danny Zuko. Maybe, but he’s awfully talented — maybe too talented for this debacle.

The good news about Sunday-night TV is that Sundance is running Season 3 of the fantastic Canadian series “Slings & Arrows” about a large Shakespeare festival theater. One of the night’s best lines was uttered by the director character Darren played by Don McKellar, who had just returned from directing a dark musical about Humpty Dumpty in Amsterdam.

I must say I’ve fallen in love with the musical genre. It’s the art form of the common man. If you want to communicate something to the proletariat, cover it in sequins and make it sing. It’s noisy, vulgar and utterly meaningless. I love it.

Finally, not on TV but in movie theaters is an extraordinary German film (nominated for an Oscar in the best foreign film category): The Lives of Others. I mention it here because it’s relevant. The main character is a celebrated theater director in pre-Glasnost East Germany. His leading lady is his significant other, and she makes an unfortunate enemy in the Minister of Arts. The performances are intense and moving, and the warmth and humanity that comes out of this cold, socialist world is extraordinary.

The movie is so good, I may root for its Oscar win over another favorite of last year, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Sling this arrow

Great news for theater dogs who also love some good TV. The Canadian-import series “Slings and Arrows” arrives for a third season on Sunday (Feb. 18) on the Sundance Channel.

If the first two seasons are any indication, season 3 will be a hoot as we return to the New Burbage Theatre Festival (which bears a striking similarity to the Stratford Festival). Apparently there will be a production of King Lear to contend with as well as a new musical with music and lyrics by the team that created The Drowsy Chaperone on Broadway (most of whom were already involved with the creation of “Slings and Arrows” to begin with. (That’s Paul Gross, Don Mckellar and Mark McKinney in the photo.)

I can’t emphasize enough how enjoyable this series is. It’s so sharply written and acted that even theater unenthusiasts might enjoy it.

Visit the Sundance Channel Web site for information. If you don’t have cable, the first two seasons are available on DVD. Check them out at Amazon.