It's a good bet that very few actors working today have taken to life on the road with quite the same gusto as Jonathan Crombie. The Canadian actor, best known in this country for his role as Gilbert Blythe in the television series "Anne of Green Gables," plays Man in Chair in the national company of The Drowsy Chaperone.
"My lifestyle is perfect for touring," he says. "I've never wanted to buy a house or a car. I like the idea of being able to pick up a bag and go from city to city. I carry a tiny knapsack and another small suitcase. That's it. I'm loving the adventure, I love the people I work with, and I love the show."
The Drowsy Chaperone takes place in the apartment of Man in Chair. He puts on the cast album of a little-known 1920s show called The Drowsy Chaperone, and as he describes the production to the audience, the jaunty musical springs to life in his drab apartment. This richly imaginative show, written by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (score), Bob Martin — the original Man in Chair — and Don McKellar (book), and directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, stops this month in San Francisco (July 22–Aug. 17).
Man in Chair — part host, part narrator, part guide — is a lonely, sharp-tongued, strangely endearing character, dressed in an oversized, nondescript sweater that vividly helps define him. "The cardigan is a bit of a metaphor for the show itself," says Crombie. "He wraps himself up in the comfort of a show like he wraps himself up in the comfort of that cardigan, like he wraps himself up in that big easy chair. It's a refuge; it's almost like a soft, knit armor." Crombie, who is a member of an award-winning sketch comedy group that also includes Martin and Lambert, appeared as a chef in the earliest version of The Drowsy Chaperone, which was performed as a gift for Bob Martin and Janet Van de Graaff in 1998 in honor of their forthcoming wedding. (Characters in the show bear their names.) A year later, a considerably revised production was staged at the Toronto Fringe Festival. Crombie played Gangster #2, and continued on with the show as it moved to mainstream theatres in Toronto. He later made his Broadway debut as Man in Chair.
"One of the great lessons I learned from Bob about this role was to let the show-within-the-show inform your energy," says Crombie. "You're living in the world of an LP rotating at 33 RPM. It's easy to allow a more languid energy to come through when you lift off the needle and move back to reality. But there's a buoyancy that must be maintained."
In addition to performing in the play, Crombie is also currently working with a friend on a documentary called "Waiting for Ishtar." They are huge fans of the much-maligned 1987 movie "Ishtar," and the documentary was inspired by his friend's visit to a library and the discovery that there was a waiting list of 40 to view the film. Their documentary features interviews with directors, critics, cast members and one of the people that was waiting for "Ishtar." "I helped direct, and I'm the cameraman," says Crombie.
While on the road with The Drowsy Chaperone, Crombie has also been working with a very different camera — the disposable kind. To commemorate his first American tour, he decided to take one photo of something unique in each city. "In my dressing room in Charlotte, there was a picture of a cartoon horse drawn by Jack Klugman. I thought, 'That will do.'"