Elaine Paige may have delighted the invited first night audience at the UK premiere of The Drowsy Chaperone last night (6 June 2007, previews from 14 May) at the West End’s Novello Theatre (See Today’s WOS TV & 1st Night Photos), but what did the critics make of both her performance and of the original Canadian-born musical?
A parody of 1920s romantic musicals, The Drowsy Chaperone begins with a modern-day musical theatre addict (Bob Martin) who, to chase his blues away, drops the needle on his favourite LP, the 1928 musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone. From the crackle of his hi-fi, the musical bursts to life on stage, telling the tale of a pampered Broadway starlet who wants to give up show business to get married, her producer who sets out to sabotage the nuptials, her chaperone (Paige), the debonair groom, the dizzy chorine, the Latin lover and a pair of gangsters who double as pastry chefs.
In addition to Paige and Martin, the London cast features features Summer Strallen, Nickolas Grace, John Partridge, Selina Chilton, Joseph Alessi, Anne Rogers, Nick Holder, Enyoman Gbesmete, Cameron Jack, Adam Stafford and Sean Kinglsey. The show has music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison and a book by Don McKellar and Martin.
The Drowsy Chaperone, which started life in 1998 as a sketch for a stag do in Toronto, opened at the Marquis Theatre in New York in May last year and won five 2006 Tony Awards. The UK premiere production reunites the Broadway creative team led by director-choreographer Casey Nicholas and designer David Gallo.
Whilst one overnight critic thought it lacked “the pinpoint accuracy of true satire”, others agreed that The Drowsy Chaperone is amusingly “fresh” entertainment that only the “self-importantly serious and the chronically depressed” would fail to enjoy. Of the performances, critics welcomed back the “big chesty voice” of Paige, while also praising the “stellar” turn from Summer Strallen as the starlet and bride-to-be Janet Van de Graaff and show co-creator and original Broadway star Bob Martin as the Man in Chair.
Michael Coveney for Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “The idea behind The Drowsy Chaperone, a mixed box of delights spoofing the 1920s musical comedy genre, is that you get to see the show of your dreams instead of the one you have to see most of the time. ‘Your’ – our – representative in this quest is Man in Chair, whose opening lament of ‘I hate theatre’ sums up the frustration… And then there is Elaine Paige as the eponymous chaperone to Janet, a dwarfish dipsomaniac with just one big overblown number, ‘As We Stumble Along’. Paige shows no qualms in sending herself up, and it is good to hear her big chesty voice emanating from her bird-like frame again. The music and lyrics of Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison are not good enough to make you forget Cole Porter and Jerome Kern, but they do have their moments in the manically relentless first act finale, ‘Toledo Surprise’, and a sweet little soft-shoe shuffle, ‘Love Is Always Lovely in the End’. Ah well, it’s all fairly enjoyable. But is it the ultimate musical comedy elixir? Dream on.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (two stars) – “What exactly is the show sending up? All the action is seen through the eyes of the host, played by Bob Martin himself with the manic gleam of the musical buff and an epicene intensity that would make Kenneth Williams look butch. At one level, the show seems to be mocking the loneliness of the long-playing collector. At the same time, it implies the kind of musicals such aficionados worship had a nonsensical charm signally absent from Les Mis and Miss Saigon… The real problem, however, is that the show never knows exactly where to pitch its camp… It also lacks the pinpoint accuracy of true satire: many of its gags, especially the notion of hoodlums translated into song-and-dance men, belong more to the 1930s than the previous decade… But, for all the energy of Casey Nicholaw's production, I would readily sacrifice the whole of this glitzy charade for ten minutes of the real thing by Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “I loved The Drowsy Chaperone when I saw it on Broadway last year, but wondered whether it was just too frothy and insubstantial to please an English audience. To judge by the rapture of the first night audience at the Novello, I was wrong. Better yet, I enjoyed it even more the second time around, for beyond its inanity, it is also curious touching… Casey Nicholaw directs with exactly the right light touch, and his dance routines are an effervescent joy, while Bob Martin, who also co-wrote the book with Don McKellar, beautifully balances wit and pathos as the narrator. Among the cast, the delightful Summer Strallen makes an enchanting heroine with legs that go on forever… Only the self-importantly serious and the chronically depressed will fail to enjoy this preposterously entertaining evening.”
Sam Marlowe in The Times (four stars) –“Those with a taste for melodic, feelgood nostalgia will find plenty to feast upon in this musical’s breezy, interval-free 100 minutes. But it offers more than that. It’s deceptive: it may look and sound deliciously daft, but beneath the razz-matazz and romance, the slapstick and the sentiment, it’s extremely smart ... Paige is enjoyably bug-eyed, inebriated and imperious – and doesn’t flinch from sending herself up. In a sly allusion to Paige’s own reputation, Man in Chair informs us that the actress who played the chaperone was ‘notoriously difficult’; and she spends her big number, ‘As We Stumble Along’, gleefully upstaging the bride-to-be… The stellar performance, though, comes from Summer Strallen as Janet – fabulously leggy, divinely graceful and irresistibly funny… However clever and appealing it is, this musical is an airy confection without much substance. But then, it never pretends otherwise. ‘I just wanna be entertained,’ says Man in Chair. ‘Isn’t that the point?’ Where this show is concerned, absolutely.
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “It's a rare evening when a musical makes me laugh out loud and often but it happened last night. The Drowsy Chaperone, whose alluring title signals its distinctive character, surprises and delights, thanks to its central conceit… Elaine Paige's drowsy-through-alcohol chaperone, more interested in snaring an Italian ladies' man than protecting her charge, sings her one big number, ‘As We Stumble Along’, with real gusto. The performances in director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw's production tend to exuberant caricature. Miss Paige makes a broad, even grotesque drunk and she burlesques her star-actress-as-scene-stealer role. It's an enjoyably fresh show, but is there an audience for a musical spoofing the genre?”
Paul Callan in the Daily Express - The show “brings back the wonderful Elaine Paige to the London stage in the show-stopping title role. She brings enormous style to her boozy character, particularly in the touching number ‘As We Stumble Along’. Summer Strallen has a sugar-sweet quality in her stylish pastiche of the ingenue role of Janet Van de Graaff. Her singing is charming to which she adds a deft touch for comic timing ... But the stunning performance of the evening is surely that of Bob Martin, the show's guide who takes us through his love of this parody musical. From the very start, he achieves a splendid intimacy with the audience, even a warmth and a friendship … My only reservation is that, although the show is under two hours, it would still have been a good idea to have an interval - despite what Bob Martin says. That apart, The Drowsy Chaperone is a frolicking great show of immense colour and pace - and a must to see.”
- by Jake Brunger