The woman sitting in front of me turned round at the end of the show and said in a cheese-grater America accent: “I’m going to ask for my £25 back, because YOU enjoyed it TOO MUCH!”
I’m not sure if she was saying that she hadn’t enjoyed it, or that my level of enjoyment had impaired her own. As is the way when accosted by strange people, I didn’t wait around long enough to discuss the matter in any detail!
But, the simple fact is, I did enjoy the show and had indulged in quite a bit of, admittedly, LOUD-ish laughter, which I had assumed was OK since this was a musical comedy not The Tragedie of King Lear!
I’ve never previously reviewed a show on this blog (although with The Lord of the Rings - The Musical about to open, this may not be the last time I do!) but obviously this was something to blog about!
So, what, you’re asking by now, was this show…?
It was The Drowsy Chaperone, which, I admit - and which even the show’s publicity admits! - is not perhaps a title guranteed to set the West End a-flame, or maybe not today…
But, you see, back in 1928----
Hang on, I better explain…... When Jule Gable and Sidney Stein’s The Drowsy Chaperone opened at the Morosco Theatre in New York in 1928, the show - starring Jane Roberts, Percy Hyman and Beatrice Stockwell - garnered good revues of which a good example is: “If this entertainment isn’t Ibsen or Shakespeare, it’s at least four times more fun!”
You’ve never heard of Gable and Stein? Never heard of the musical theatre partnership that gave the world a string of such unforgettable hit shows as The Gay Geisha and Hamlet & Eggs?
Ah... Well, that’s because they and The Drowsy Chaperone (along with Mr Hyman and Mesdames Roberts and Stockwell) were, in fact MADE UP by Bob Martin & Don McKellar (Book) and Lisa Lamberet and Greg Morrison (Music & Lyrics)!
Essentially, The Drowsy Chaperone (at London’s Novello Theatre) is a Tony Award-winning musical about a musical that never actually was, but which - in a certain era of American showbiz - could easily have existed --- and been a smasharoony success!
It begins with a voice in the dark… Talking to us out of the void… It is the Man in the Chair, the only name he has (stunningly played by the book’s co-writer, Bob Martin), talking about musical shows…
“You say a prayer: ‘Please God make it good and not too long...' Two hours is fine, three hours is far too long; and please don’t let the actors come out into the audience… The last thing I want to happen when I go to the theatre is for ‘the fourth wall' to fall on top of me…”
The lights go up and we are in Manhattan apartment of TMitC (a closeted queen with a taste for brown cardies and cords) who explains that when, like today, he is feeling a "little blue", he lifts his spirits by playing his favourite LP: the original cast recording of Gable and Stein’s The Drowsy Chaperone…
So, would we like to hear it...?
Of course we would! On goes the vinyl, the overture strikes up and out of THE REFIGERATOR (yes, you did read that correctly!) tumble the show’s original cast of divas, heavies, comics and eccentrics to perform for TMitC (and us) right there and then in his living room!
This show within the show is full of gloriously over-the-top campery and outrageous plot-twists of the kind that peppered so many musical comedies in the days when revue was making way for what, today, we would call the ‘book musical’: I might mention lover’s tiffs, a marriage that is on-and-off-and-on-again, gangsters masquerading as pastry-chefs and the eponymous drowsy chaperone with a tireless devotion to alcohol that isn’t going to be stopped by a little thing like prohibition!
All this plus over-the-top musical numbers (some involving acrobatics and roller-skating!) that - whilst not being quite as memorable as the songs from some of the authentic shows of that era which they pastiche - nevertheless charm us with their sense of loving homage.
The ensemble cast (including John Partridge, Summer Strallen, Anne Rogers and Nickolas Grace) is led by the redoubtable Elaine Paige, back on the West End stage after way too long an absence.
In Ms Paige’s exquistite rendition of the Chaperone’s delicious number, ‘As We Stumble Along’ (What a blissful title! No Merrily Rolling Along for Gable & Stein!), she laughs not just at the absurdities of life (and ‘the musical’ view of life) but indulges in a series of self-deprecating gibes at her own lack of height and presumed diva-ego.
The Drowsy Chaperone isn’t a ‘star’ vehicle (unless that accolade should go to Bob Martin as TMitC, who is here, there and everywhere throughout the show, commenting, annotating, interacting and interrupting and, in so doing, revealing tantalising glimpses into the dreams and dramas of his own life) and anyone booking to see ‘An Elaine Paige Musical’ might feel very slightly conned - though, surely only momentarily…
Nevertheless, it is a timely reminder that Ms Paige - with credits that include Evita, Cats and Chess - is rightly considered 'The First Lady of British Musical Theatre' and that her voice and star-charisma are undiminished and should be more frequently available to theatre-goers! For example, a revival of her Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard would be gratefully received; and why can’t Londoners see (as New Yorkers did) her performance as Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd? And, thinking of roles that she hasn't played but ought to play, what about Mame? And what about Gypsy?
Meanwhile, there’s The Drowsy Chaperone...
Of course, I realise that genre-spoofs are a tricky thing and that some people will 'get it' and some people won't, but if you do make a date with The Drowsy Chaperone then you'll at least be among the first to see what I reckon could become a much-loved, cult-show in the mould of Rocky Horror, Little Shop and Forbidden Planet.
I do hope you won't be disappointed.
But if you are… well, like the lady sitting in front of me the other night, you'll know who to blame!