For many a Broadway musical today, spectacle is the name of the game. But the ambitions of The Drowsy Chaperone, which continues cavorting at the Fox Theatre through Sunday, are so modest that when the curtain rises, we are in the dark. Literally. The evening's earliest laughs are only heard. But be patient: There will be plenty to see soon enough.
The premise here (after the lights come up) is that we are visiting the drab apartment of a nameless yet ardent musical theater aficionado. As this rather sad little guy, who is only identified as Man in Chair, plays the original record of the 1928 Gable and Stein musical romp The Drowsy Chaperone, that once-wonderful show (you remember it, don't you? Of course you do!) is restored to life through his imagination. The brides and bridegrooms, butlers, Lotharios and gangsters who once made Chaperone the pre-Depression-era toast of Broadway return to strut their stuff. We are treated to tap dancing, blindfolded roller-skating and surprises galore.
We only see the highlights of that vintage operetta, but half a musical is better than none, right? Of course right, especially when those highlights are so wittily introduced by our pithy host. This restored Chaperone has been invigorating Broadway for nearly eighteen months now, and the tour is brand-new. St. Louis is only its third stop, so the production is still sharp and crisp. Grateful kudos to Mike Isaacson at Fox Theatricals for getting it here so promptly.
It's fitting that Chaperone should play the Fox, which was in its final phase of construction when the original version debuted at New York's Morosco Theater in September 1928 (one of the 38 musicals to open that year). Popular lore has it that St. Louis favorite Harry Fender turned down the original role of the bridegroom, just as he also had rejected the role of Gaylord Ravenal in Show Boat the preceding year. As your grandparents surely recall, Chaperone went on to become a Muny mainstay in the 1930s and '40s. (Guy Robertson and Leonard Ceeley often played the pastry chefs, and local favorite Gladys Baxter ran rings around the title role.) I even have a dim recollection of having seen its final Forest Park staging in the early '50s. Dorothy Collins played the ingénue to Allan Jones' bridegroom, and Arthur Treacher was a hoot as the butler.
Alas, popular though composers Gable and Stein once were, they soon were eclipsed by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Yet here their crown jewel has been lovingly restored to its former glory. It's fascinating to realize how many stage and movie musicals, from Flying Down to Rio to Lady in the Dark, were influenced by this trifle.
Among the swell new cast, I was especially charmed by Georgia Engel's absent-minded dowager. Although our host reminds us that the original dowager was played by that once-esteemed vaudeville performer Ukelele Lil (who, if memory serves, was an illegitimate cousin of Will Rogers), it's hard to imagine even the real Lil being more delightfully daffy than Engel, who is suavely abetted by Robert Dorfman as her caretaker.
But the key to the evening is Man in Chair. He is our guide, our enthusiast, our annotator, our purveyor of common sense. "Fun — that's what this show is," he explains at the outset. Indeed it is, from beginning to intermissionless end, and Jonathan Crombie makes it so. One of the evening's greatest pleasures is watching Crombie torn between wanting to share his delight with the audience even as it is a struggle for him to turn away from watching the joyous reverie that is playing out on the stage of his mind.
Like the man in the chair, you too might not want to pry your eyes from all these swirling high jinks. But do check out the people sitting around you. Then ask yourself: When was the last time you saw so many smiling faces? The Drowsy Chaperone is a mirth maker. It transports us to a state of innocence, then sends us home on a cloud of bliss.