Center-Stage Smartass

A flaming narrator ignites the Palace's Drowsy Chaperone.

Playhouse Square musicals

The Drowsy Chaperone

Through October 28 at the Palace Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000.

Remember those old educational films shown back in our school days? There was always one wiseass in the back, whispering nasty jokes about the action onscreen, rendering the alleged learning experience a hilarious comedy bit.

That guy probably dreamed of turning his ad-lib mockery into gainful employment someday, and it appears his dream has come true with The Drowsy Chaperone.

Though many of its tunes are eminently forgettable, this musical within a reminiscence succeeds thanks to the wry yet passionate narration of the Man in the Chair, elevating this production far beyond the ordinary bit of fluff it is.

A clever send-up of 1920s musicals (music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar), Chaperone is wrapped around the play-by-play of the Man in the Chair, a homo who loves those corny old shows and is intent on sharing his adoration of this art form with the audience.

Shortly after the opening curtain, he is lovingly wiping the dust off an old 78 rpm record before placing it on the hi-fi. And then, amid all the scratches, the overture begins for the show alluded to in the title. Soon, his drab apartment is filled with the cast of the long-ago production, acting up a storm and freezing in place whenever Man lifts the needle off the record to make a point.

Now we've all been to musicals and heard someone mutter, I hate theater! or I can't stand this scene! But usually, that person isn't onstage at the time. Man in the Chair is very candid about the strengths and weaknesses of this particular show as he guides the audience through the songs.

We learn that he admires the woman playing the egocentric actress Janet Van De Graaff, but his heart really belongs to the lean and grinning fellow portraying Janet's true love, Robert. This interplay between Man and those characters is just one of the multiple delights in this slick production.

But none of it achieves liftoff without the performance of Jonathan Crombie as Man in the Chair. Clad in a droopy cardigan that's as sad-looking as his deadpan face, Crombie kills in this role as he underplays his lines to maximize the laughs. When Georgia Engel (Georgette from The Mary Tyler Moore Show) exchanges spit takes with her butler, George, Man's pained reaction to this piece of theatrical schlock is to die for.

Most of the other actors acquit themselves well, but their parodies of the genre tend to be a bit broad and not terribly original. Andrea Chamberlain is nicely stuck on herself as Janet, but her star turn in "Show Off" could use a bit more edge. James Moye and Nancy Opel chew it up as the lothario Adolpho and the drowsy (make that drunk) chaperone, respectively, without finding any new facets in these stock character types.

But thanks to Jonathan Crombie, this Chaperone feels as fresh and funny as film day in fourth-period social studies.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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