National tour of 'The Drowsy Chaperone' outdoes Broadway version for charm, poignancy

Posted on June 4th, 2008

6/4/2008 12:00AM CST

The Dallas Morning News

National tour of ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ outdoes Broadway version for charm, poignancy

by Lawson Taitte

If you fret that they don’t make comedies like they used to, The Drowsy Chaperone will ease your pain. And give you a laugh or two.

This musical about a fictitious old musical won more Tony Awards than any other Broadway show in 2006. I was a naysayer back then, but I have repented. The national tour that the Dallas Summer Musicals brought to town on Tuesday is the reason for my conversion.

It’s not just a matter of affection growing on closer acquaintance. Role for role, the road version is much better cast than the New York original. Charm – a scarce commodity on Broadway – now abounds.

Take the central role, Man in Chair. Even before the lights go up, this namby-pamby narrator is talking to the audience. He has invited us into his living room, where he’s about to play a beloved old LP of a 1920s musical named, naturally, The Drowsy Chaperone. He sets the scene and puts on the overture – as the show comes to life behind him.

Bob Martin, who co-wrote the book with Don McKellar, performed the part himself originally. Here it is his old friend and fellow Canadian Jonathan Crombie, familiar to American audiences as Gilbert Blythe on the TV version of Anne of Green Gables. Mr. Crombie makes Man in Chair lovable in spite of, or perhaps because of, his theater-obsessed neuroses. He’s realer and more poignant than Mr. Martin was.

I found several of the principal performers on Broadway downright annoying, but that doesn’t happen with the touring cast. Andrea Chamberlain projects a lovely 1920s quality as Janet, the stage star ostentatiously giving up her career to marry the heir to a petroleum fortune, Robert (Mark Ledbetter). Wistful and glamorous by turns, Ms. Chamberlain reminds you of Betty Boop as interpreted by a young Bernadette Peters.

Georgia Engel, the one New York performer carrying over on the tour, gently sells the songs Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison wrote for the show. As her comic butler, Dallas favorite Robert Dorfman clowns it up magnificently and displays an unsuspected talent for tap dancing. James Moye even makes the nearly insufferable fake-Italian lover boy, Adolpho, entertaining.

Best of all, one of Broadway’s top comedians, Nancy Opel, plays the title role with a broad insouciance that takes us into her confidence. The chaperone – whose sole function is to make sure the bride doesn’t see the groom before the wedding – brings along her own liquor cabinet. It’s Prohibition, after all. Ms. Opel can belt and croon and mug hilariously while doing one of the best drunk acts you’ll ever see. The original performer in this role won a Tony; if there were any justice, Ms. Opel would be given a pair of them to balance on her mantelpiece.

Die-hard musical theater fans must not miss The Drowsy Chaperone. This touring version is so good you can have a good time even if you couldn’t tell Cole Porter from Stephen Sondheim in a crowd of two.

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