I recently caught the touring production of the musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, when it came through San Francisco. Overall my feelings towards it are positive, but like the also-recently-seen movie Mamma Mia I was left with the sense that, good as it was, it could have been better.
I’ll dispense with my concerns first to get them out of the way. Though I’m loathe to mention it due to the tears and recriminations that occurred the last time I complained about something like this (ok, that’s a slight exaggeration, but only slight…), I had issues with the sound. The orchestra was amplified well, and the Man-in-Chair/narrator also came through loud and clear, but the rest of the cast came out muddled, particularly in the musical numbers where the entire cast sang as a chorus. Unfortunately the consequence of being muddled was that it made it hard to figure out what was going on.
Which is too bad, because what was going on was actually quite clever. Extremely clever. So clever in fact that it’s why I’m disappointed the play wasn’t a little better, as in certain spots the satire was not quite as tight as the premise deserved.
The premise of the play is that the Man-in-Chair/narrator, a huge fan of musical theater, shares with the audience the soundtrack album of one of his favorite 1920s productions, The Drowsy Chaperone. As the soundtrack “plays” (read: the musical is recreated in his living room) he provides annotative commentary. So you have a play within a play, the ancient “Drowsy Chaperone” and the larger modern one that lovingly mocks the all the predictable tropes exploited by the “original.”
The result is a very clever satirical look at musical theater, past and present, and society generally, past and present. Think of every corny old movie you’ve ever seen, some near-tragic romantic comedy that’s naturally neatly tied up with a happily-ever-after ending. That happened here. Think of every vaudevillian act. They were here too. Think of every politically incorrect ethnic stereotyping… They, too, were exposed here in their ridiculousness. (For instance the satiric swipe at The King and I was one of the best bits in the show, gasp-for-breath funny.)
And that’s what the musical was mostly about, mocking the intrinsic silliness that used to pass for mainstream theater unquestioned. It is, of course, also loving in its treatment of it, reveling in the sweet naivety of that earlier time as much as teasing it. The modern play’s satire is never wielded maliciously, but sometimes I think it could have been wielded a little more cleverly. There’s inherently some tension in its quality, because as part of the joke a lot of the acting is purposefully bad. But (and maybe this was because of the sound problems) it was sometimes hard to tell if the less entertaining parts were less entertaining on purpose, or because they could have been written a little better.