I generally speaking like classical musicals. Anyone who reads this will have noted my dislike for Mr. Lloyd Webber (perhaps that’s Sir to you but you’ve got to earn it in my book) and utter failure to see Wicked; Schönberg and Boublil are artisans of dreck in my world. Yet peeking out of the land of desolation that is, to me, the world of musical theater post-Kander and Ebb, is a world of a few twinkling stars, musicals that actually succeed in being entertaining, telling a story, and sending me home with a song in my heart.
High in that constellation of stars is The Drowsy Chaperone, a show that, in its short-lived West End incarnation, proved life-changing for me in some ways (as it convinced me the West End Whingers’ blog was a source of genius tips on what to see, which led to, oh, writing this blog, eventually, and being a part of a “theater blogging community”); but which, most importantly, filled my head full of wonderful memories of sequins, tap dancing, high kicks (Summer Strallen!), and songs I’ve sung to myself ever since. I went twice in two weeks; I bought the soundtrack; I bought the t-shirt (“Oops Girl”); I went online and bought the monkey (probably best you not ask). I was sorry when it closed (prematurely, in my mind) and have spent a lot of time wondering why such a witty, musical show failed to find an audience when it had me crying in my Cosmopolitan; bad publicity, I think, was the cause. Still, it was a brilliant show and I will regularly pop the show disc in when I need a little pick-me-up.
Cue this summer and news that the Upstairs at the Gatehouse pub theater was remounting Drowsy. It seemed odd to me that a show so big and so new would be coming to such a small space (more recently home to Calamity Jane). Could it do it justice? Well, I wasn’t going to be TOO picky; I loved the show, I was desperate to see it again, so I paid my money and headed on down a day or so after opening night hoping for the best.
The show was, in some ways, more engaging than the original version I’d seen; the “man in chair” (Matthew Lloyd Davies), who spends the show explaining to the audience why he is so fond of this “silly 20s musical” The Drowsy Chaperone, really looks at and talks to the audience and even gets them (er, us) to respond. The dance routines (the big ones being the tap-dancing “Cold Feet” and “I Don’t Wanna Show Off No More”) were, if less impressive in their execution, rather exhilirating in being just a few feet away (though the Novello, of course, was able to put in an Underling (Ted Merwood) who could tap dance as well as the two young men who lead “Cold Feet”).
Best of all was, shockingly enough, Adolfo (Michael Howe). He was right in the audience – possibly in some women’s laps at some point and practically with his nose down their shirts – even at the very beginning, to hysterical result. He put me off a bit (well, got a laugh for an accident) when he slipped while leaning on his cane in his first scene – but then completely topped that by falling flat out when he came racing out from a door and his cape was caught behind him. I thought it was just bad luck, but then I realized: they were all pratfalls! It was part of the comedic Adolfo personality. He just pushed the character right on over the top and let him, well, “keep falling” as it were, with great results. Last I saw this show he was a throwaway stereotype; in the Gatehouse version, Adolfo upped the game for everybody else, outshining not just the Chaperone (Siobhan McCarthy in a role I can’t image how to make more interesting – it’s just kind of flat) but even little Miss Showoff herself, Janet Vandergraaf (Amy Diamond).
While Alolfo’s falls could eventually be ascribed to comic genius, other elements seem to speak of a certain cheapness I associate with fringe theater. Janet’s first “Showoff” costume, a tennis outfit, was poorly joined at the back and left half of her black-satin rump exposed – while I realized she needed a quick change outfit, all of the costuming money for the show should really have been blown on her character and having this particular outfit so … halfassed really detracted from the effect of this scene (and I think wouldn’t have cost too much to fix). Ursula Mohan as Mrs Tottendale seemed timid rather than ditzy; during the “spray” scene she merely misted Underling, and during the second act she had … was it toliet paper on her shoe? I couldn’t decide if it were an effect or an accident given the whole Adolfo thing. And finally, while “Trix the Aviatrix” made a wonderful entrance in her tiny airplane in act one, her actual appearence … via a television … at the end of the second act utterly mystified me. Did Sophia Nomvete just not want to waste a whole evening on a ten minute scene, or was the Gatehouse too cheap to pay her to sit around? I mean, it was done well enough (the character stayed on the screen for the entire “freeze” during the power outage), but … it just seemed a little bit off to me somehow. And by “off” I mean cheap.
Still, the overall effect of this show was very good, taking full advantage of an intimate space and a fantastic show to make a good night of theater. I absolutely feel it was worth £16 and consider it a “must see” for this fall’s London theater scene for the musicals fan. Who cares about The Donmar Warehouse: get thee to the Gatehouse for Drowsy Chaperone!
(This review is for a performance that took place Saturday night, September 25th, 2010. The show continues through October 31st, 2010. Please see