With music and lyrics by Lia Lambert and Greg Morrison and book by Bob Martin and Don McKellor, The Drowsy Chaperone , which bills itself as "the funniest musical on Broadway" is possibly the most elaborate in-joke Broadway's lavish Marquis Theatre has ever seen, and that includes Raquel Welch's starring role in Victor/Victoria.
Local audiences now have a chance to see what all the fuss is about as the national tour of the show - which originated in Ontario just last month - plays the Fox through November 11th . The Drowsy Chaperone, as it turns out, is a very smart and mostly very funny parody of musical theatre and, to a certain extent, the very concept of theatre itself. It's fun to watch, and I found my appreciation of its cleverness increasing in retrospect - always a good sign.
As the show opens, a character known only as The Man in the Chair is seated in his "rather ordinary New York apartment". Suffering from what he describes as "a non-specific sadness", he invites the audience to escape with him by listening to the deluxe 2-LP set of his favorite musical, The Drowsy Chaperone by Gabel and Stein. As he drops the needle on his low-fi, the fictitious musical takes shape in his imagination and comes to life on the stage. As the show goes on, The Man in the Chair guides the audience through the convoluted story and offers his own ironic comments.
The show begins as both a send-up of and affectionate tribute to late-1920s froth but soon broadens its targets to include much of mid-20th century American musical theatre. All the jokes you might expect are there, along with a few at the expense of the LP itself, as in a moment near the end of hyperkinetic production number, "Toledo Surprise", when a scratch in the record (remember those?) causes the entire company to repeat the last couple of bars until The Man can work his way through the dancing throng to stomp on the floor and make the needle jump.
There's a similar moment when The Man in the Chair starts what the thinks is disc 2 of The Drowsy Chaperone and walks away "to pee". Unfortunately his LPs have gotten mixed up, and instead we see an embarrassingly racist moment from one of Gable and Stein's lesser efforts, The Enchanted Nightingale - which just happens to be a neat parody of The King and I.
There's a great deal more of that sort of thing. The "Bride's Lament", for example, is a ludicrous "mad scene" featuring leading lady Janet Van De Graaff (as in "generator"), deliberately awful lyrics involving a monkey on a pedestal ("try to block them out - they're not the best"), and a production number that seems to have been inspired by the use of major hallucinogens. The fictitious musical reaches its absurd finale when Trix the Aviatrix (Fran Jaye) performs a multiple marriage aboard her plane and everyone flies down to Rio - without Fred Astaire, but with The Man in the Chair - for a honeymoon.
Bringing all this to life is a talent-packed cast of eighteen remarkably energetic performers. Most of them are pulling off, with great success, the dual trick of playing both characters in The Drowsy Chaperone and the actors playing the characters in The Drowsy Chaperone, about whom The Man delivers little biographical tidbits as the evening progresses.
Jonathan Crombie is completely charming as The Man in the Chair, a role he played earlier this year in the Broadway production. Although it's a non-singing role, it's the linchpin of the show, and on opening night Crombie's strong performance won the audience over immediately. As Janet Van De Graaff, a role she understudied on Broadway, Andrea Chamberlain is just electrifying (sorry about that), and Nancy Opel hams it up hilariously as Stage Legend Beatrice Stockwell, over-acting her way through the role of the titular Chaperone.
Real-life brothers Peter and Paul Riopelle are broadly and appropriately comic as The Tall Brothers (yes, they're both short), a vaudeville duo playing a pair of gangsters who appear to have wandered in from Guys and Dolls. Mark Ledbetter is all toothy charm as Percy Hyman, the charming matinee idol playing Robert Martin - highly appropriate since, as The Man in the Chair reminds us, Hyman was the spokesman for All-Brite Brand Toothpaste, the principal component of which was cocaine ("if you looked at the label, it was the fifth ingredient down - right after Sugar").
Other outstanding performers include Georgia Engel repeating her Broadway role as Ukulele Lil and Robert Dorfman as Noel Fitzpatrick, a pair of now-unknown vaudeville vets playing the dotty Mrs. Tottendale and her faithful underling Underling; Cliff Bemis and Marla Mindelle as Jack and Sadie Adler, a Burns-and-Allen-style comedy team playing harried producer Feldzieg and chorine Kitty; James Moye as "former silent film star and world-class alcohollc" Roman Bartelli, camping it up as Aldolpho; and Richard Vida as the all-purpose Best Man, George.
Technically, the show runs like a very well oiled machine, with rapid set and costume changes flipping us back and forth between The Man's shabby apartment and glitzy world of the musical with ease, and all the jokes delivered with split-second precision. Better yet, the sound is remarkably clear, which is not always the case with today's over-amplified musicals.
At just over one hour and forty minutes with no intermission (The Man in the Chair hates them), The Drowsy Chaperone neatly avoids what I have come to regard as the curse of recent musical comedies: not knowing when to quit. There are just enough jokes and just enough musical theatre fan references to be entertaining. The Man in the Chair has just enough back-story to be interesting but not so much that he becomes genuinely sad. Like Baby Bear's chair, porridge, and bed, it's all just right.
The Drowsy Chaperone runs through November 11th  at the Fox in Grand Center. Don't think you have to be a musical theatre geek to enjoy it; the in-jokes are general enough to appeal to just about anyone who has ever seen a Fred Astaire film or a Rogers and Hammerstein show and the evening really is great fun overall. You'll probably be able to get decent seats as well. If opening night was any indication the show isn't drawing the massive crowds one sees for mega-musicals like The Lion King, although Chaperone is no less entertaining. Call 314-534-1111 for ticket information.