The Drowsy Chaperone
The Novello Theatre, 24 July 2007
Review by Emma Shane,
© August 2007
When I first head this new musical’s score I was intrigued; and yet wondered why the show didn’t seem to be doing well. It soon becomes apparent. Fun though the show is, in places it does feel a bit like I imagine it might have felt to watch Ziegfeld. (although Ziegfeld was probably much worse). The chief problem is the show tries to be bigger than it really is, at least as far as it’s advertising is concerned. Once inside the theatre, when the show itself takes over; if you like good old-fashioned 1920s style fun, then this is the show for you. However this is of course not the 1920s, so to bring things up to date there is the character of The-Man-In-The-Chair, explaining things and setting the context.
The Overture is a jolly piece, typical of the show. The company are introduced in a pleasant little number Fancy Dress. There enters Robert (The Groom) played by John Partridge, and George (his Best Man) played by Sean Kingsley with Cold Feet. Clearly these two guys can dance up a storm, their feet are far from cold. Then it’s Summer Strallen’s turn, as Janet (The Bride). Her character is meant to be a Broadway Follies girl leading lady, and now in one of her very first major roles in a big West End musical, Summer Strallen proves that she has what it takes to portray a star, Show Off is a delightful 20s pastiche number, perfect to show off her talents. As far as billing is concerned, however, the star of the show is Elaine Paige, in the title role; who stumbles through, As We Stumble Along. However she does act her part rather well. Enter Joseph Alexi introducing himself with I Am Aldolpho. Actually he is trying to explain to the Chaperone how to say his name. Many of the characters in the show are pastiches of stereotypes, and Aldopho is one of these. From the moment he steps on stage it is clear he is meant to be the kind of character that Erik Rhodes would have done on Broadway in the 1930s (and indeed he also reprised his original stage role, Rodolfo Tonetti, in the film of The Gay Divorcee, however James Vaughan’s performance in the Lost Musicals production of that was rather superior). Joseph Alexi does a good job with his song, although I did find myself half wishing Mr Vaughan could get a hold of this number (as given his experience he might do something amazing with it).
On with the pastiche, John Partridge gets an opportunity to really demonstrate his dance skills in a roller-skating number An Accident Waiting To Happen. Shades of Astaire and Rogers’s classic Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off? Well to some extent, although musically I felt this number was actually closer to another film roller-skating classic, music by Andre Previn (Mr Preview) and lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green ‘s I Like Myself, which Gene Kelly roller-skated in It’s Always Fair Weather. Summer Strallen puts in an appearance, as Janet disguising herself as Mimi (a French girl), now it’s shades of Anyone Can Whistle! Is Summer Strallen going to be a successor to the likes of Janie Dee?
More pastiche is present in the characters of two gangsters disguised as pastry chefs, played by Adam Stafford and Cameron Jack. They are supposedly trying to stop the wedding. However, as the Man-In The-Chair points out they are typical Broadway Musical Comedy Gangsters. In other words a comedy dancing and wisecracking double-act. Its the kind of act that was around in the 20s, it continued through to the forties with such musicals as Kiss Me Kate, more recent decedents are the spies in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Typically, these sort of characters the end up getting caught up with the putting-on-a-show theme with Toleodo Surprise; the best (and certainly catchiest) song in the show; and pretty much the whole company joins in with gusto, especially Selina Chilton. It’s super, and quite obviously an Act 1 climax. The sort of number with which it’s usually just as well to end an act with, because usually in musicals (unless you’re Sondheim) you can’t follow it immediately.
The Man-In-The-Chair explains that at this point there would have been an interval in the original show, but we won’t be having one. He then launches into an anti-interval tirade. That was quite kind of funny, with the references to irritating tourists. However, I felt the point was a bit overdone, and then the character gets out some fruit bar and proceeds to eat it. Which I felt did not really have any relevance to the show. Things liven up with the second record going on, we find Kitty, The Gangsters, Aldolpho and the Drowsy Chaperone in Eastern costume singing Message From A Nightingale. While many of the songs in this show, in true era style have only a tenuous relationship to the plot. This one, while very funny clearly doesn’t have anything whatsoever to do with the show-within-a-show’s plot. However it is very cleverly worked in, with the explanation of the record being in the wrong sleeve. On with the right record Summer Strallen and company lament The Bride’s Lament, a perfectly satisfactory, but not particularly memorable number. Rather more memorable is Mrs Tottendale, and her butler Underling’s duet Love Is Always Lovely In The End. Tonight Anne Rogers was absent (reason unknown), but second cover Nina French did a perfectly good job with the number, while Nickolas Grace demonstrated his tap dancing skills. Perhaps not quite up there with John Partridge and Sean Kingsley, but nevertheless very good, especially considering his age (whatever that is). There follows the surprising entrance of Trix, (the aviator), whom most of the audience had probably forgotten all about (she came on briefly during the opening number, when Man-In-The-Chair had remarked on how forward looking the show was to have a black girl as the aviator. Enyona, Gbesemete makes the most of a small part. George has forgotten to book a minister for the wedding, so Trix, lands her bi-plane on the stage, and as an Air-Captain performs the ceremony, I Do I Do In The Sky. In the best tradition of operetta and musical comedy we end with a wedding, or rather (like HMS Pinfore) several weddings, in this case: Janet & Robert, Mrs Tottendale & Underling, Adolpho & The Drowsy Chaperone, and, Kitty & Feldzig. Then as the sing the finale there is a sudden pause, they freeze, it’s dark, a power-cut. The-Man-In-The-Chair gets his torch and opens the door to a workman who needs to reset something electrical. As if embarrassed The-Man-In-The-Chair explains he was just listening to a musical. The workman immediately says that he’s a big fan of musicals too, and promptly reels of a bunch of musicals he’s enjoyed, mostly from the 1980s. One is particularly struck by his comment about the helicopter in Miss Saigon, well given that Trix’s bi-plane is still on the stage! He departs and the company finish the show with As We Stumble Along (reprise), during which The-Man-In-The-Chair somehow gets entangled with the action.
All the company had done a good job. For the most part Steve Pemberton’s Man-In-Chair managed to engage the audience, although I felt the character sometimes explained things a bit too much for a British audience. Do the kind of people attracted to this show need quite so many explanations? Yes a good number raised interesting points about the history of musical theatre, which we might not have thought of. But some of them were just a bit too obvious. I also felt some elements of the character that were a bit unnecessary, the blood-sugar problem for example. However, I did like the reference to his ex-wife, especially when he told the audience they shouldn’t make assumptions; in other words he isn’t Gay. After all there are a good number of us heterosexuals who like musical theatre too. Why should a person’s sexuality even be considered a factor in presuming what kind of culture they like anyway? It should perhaps be pointed out that the The-In-The-Chair is not being homophobic, he is simply pointing out that he himself happens to be hetrosexual. Anne Rogers’s absence meant that Nina French played Mrs Tottendale with all the skill one would expect from a well trained musical theatre performer; even if she was a little young for the part. She paired up well with the more experienced Nicholas Grace’s Underling. He got a good opportunity for a nice little part, that even included some tap dancing; and he made the most of it. However the two best tap dancers in the show are John Partridge and Sean Kingsley. The former is basically the romantic lead, his character Robert Martin being named after one of the show’s own writers (for whose wedding present) the show was originally concocted. John Partridge proves that he can act well. He might one day be a successor to Tim Flavin. He’s also a jolly decent tap-dancer, in a very Gene Kelly sort of way. This is not too surprising given his ballet training. Sean Kingsley as George, everybody’s Best Man, has a lovely part to play, which also gives him some splendid opportunities for tap dancing. Well it’s usually nice to see those Hot Shoe Shuffle UK Tour stalwarts getting good opportunities worthy of their talents. Meanwhile Nick Holder does a perfectly decent job as Feldzeig, a character not dissimilar to Demitri Weisman in Follies, or even Zangler in Crazy For You (but perhaps we shouldn’t mention the latter). He is however somewhat outshone by Selina Chilton’s Kitty and I’m surprised she didn’t have a number all to herself (though she managed to steal a good deal of Toledo Surprise making it very much her own). I had seen Ms Chilton in a couple of Lost Musicals, and noticed she was good, but until tonight I did not know that she trained at an excellent stage school which has turned out many of our best musical theatre performers ranging from Julie Andrews to Scarlet Strallen, also including along the way at least four major ballet dancers, plus a notable puppeteer! Who knows perhaps in the fullness of time Selina Chilton might well count amongst it’s noteworthy alumni. Nick Holder was not the only person she rather dominated, Adam Stafford and Cameron Jack’s gangsters were also somewhat in the background when they got teamed up with her. From what one could notice of their performance they seemed to do alright. I think perhaps they could have done with an additional comic number just to themselves. Another comic character is Joseph Alessi’s Aldolpho. He is an experienced LAMDA trained actor, so of course he did a reasonable job with it. The only thing was I kept thinking Oh wouldn’t it have been fun if one or other of the Lost Musicals great male comic-actors (such as Sam Kelly, Stewart Permutt or James Vaughan) could’ve got their hands on this; they’d really have had something to get their teeth into with it. But Joseph Alessi was satisfactory. One actress in this show whose performance was practically perfect was of course Summer Strallen, in the role of Janet VanDeGraff (a character named after the wife of one of the writers). The role is certainly the juvenile lead. In fact really it’s virtually a Leading Lady role. Summer certainly proves that she is more than capable of being a Leading Lady, as one should expect from a Langford. She lives up to that expectation. She also gets convincingly into the style of a 1920s heroine playing what could a silly parody role with complete conviction. The show’s nominal Leading Lady is Elaine Paige in the title role. I was not exactly keen on her singing, though I guess it was fine for those who like her singing. I felt this role really needed a better belter of a singer. But it is a difficult role to cast. The actress has to be quite short (the script demands it), but she also needs a strong voice. Even Kim Criswell might not be quite short enough for the part (although she could certainly sing it well). Julia McKenzie (5ft 4” tall) were she still working regularly in musicals could have been another good choice, because although her singing voice wouldn’t really have been strong enough, she has a trick for being able to convey the impression that her voice is more powerful than it is, and she would have been able to figure out how to do As We Stumble Along effectively, though again perhaps little too tall. Similarly Maria Friedman (5ft 3” tall) could be another great choice as she’s versatile with a good voice though perhaps not stylistically quite the thing and is she short enough? But the one person I think would have been really great in this part is Jessica Martin. At 5ft2” she’s just about small enough, and she’s got a terrific voice (as long as she sticks to being Barbara Streisand or Betty Hutton rather than Ethel Merman). Sadly, these days she seems to have almost given up show business. I also wonder what Ms Paige’s onetime (Cats) understudy Myra Sands (5ft2” tall) would make of the part if she’d ever got hold of it (though she probably wouldn’t be considered a famous enough actress for the role). So for the moment Elaine Paige (5ft tall) seems to be the best they can find for the role. She actually acted the part very well. I was impressed by her acting. I don’t usually like drunk acts, but she succeeded in making a very good job of that. Her singing just didn’t work for me, but it was good acting. And finally Enyona, Gbeseemete’s Trix, a small but important role, which was also played satisfactorily with conviction.
Overall a fun little musical.
At 90 minutes long this is a rather slight show. It’s pretty well-written but
it is slight; one long act, with no interval. I think the show could have done
with being increased in time (perhaps with some more material and a few more
numbers), to make it long enough to fit in an interval. Not least because it
makes good commercial sense. Why were Stephen
Sondheim and John Weidman forced
to include an interval in Follies? Because that’s when the
audience go and buy drinks at the bar, and ice-creams and coffee. And that
brings in some revenue. Lisa Lambert and
Greg Morrison’s score is adorable,
at least to those of us, who like them, like good ole showtunes. In a way they’ve
been a bit like Jason Carr, in that
they’ve written a score that they themselves would want to hear, without trying
to write a universal hit or anything like that. Bob Martin and Don McKellor’s
book is a little uneven, though I have come across musicals with far more
uneven books than this. The 1920s pastiche is very good. I think there is a
chance that as a book-writer for musicals Don
McKellor has the potential to become a successor to Dick Vosburgh (perhaps not quite as good, could anyone be, but still
a successor). I was not so convinced by the post-modern elements of the book. I
felt some of these parts were a bit laboured and went on too long, with a
slight tendency to assume that the audience needed everything explaining too
them. Similarly Casey Nicholaw’s
Choreography was consistently good, in keeping with the piece I am not entirely
sure if Casey Nicholaw’s direction
of the show was altogether right for the