ON THE RECORD: The Drowsy Chaperone and The Wedding Singer

On the Record   ON THE RECORD: The Drowsy Chaperone and The Wedding Singer
 
This week’s column discusses the new musical comedies The Drowsy Chaperone and The Wedding Singer.
Tony winner Beth Leavel in The Drowsy Chaperone.
Tony winner Beth Leavel in The Drowsy Chaperone. Photo by Joan Marcus

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE [Ghostlight 7915584411]
The sparkling new musical The Drowsy Chaperone seems to be working itself into the hit column, with a clutch of five well-deserved Tony Awards in hand. The pastiche musical, which started as a bachelor dinner spoof, is entertaining, endearing and extremely funny.

The show at the Marquis, and the just-released CD from Ghostlight, are sparked by a dozen delightfully droll performances, buoyantly bubbling arrangements and sparklingly effervescent orchestrations. Almost everything about The Drowsy Chaperone is just what you would wish from a bouncing new Broadway musical. In most reports from fans of the show, though, there is a small but constant "but." The score is bright and enjoyable, it is said, and works smoothly within the context of the piece; but the songs aren’t exactly — what? Special? Memorable? Distinctive?

The fact that the show works so well, of course, indicates that this is an effective score. Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison won the much sought-after silver medallion for their efforts, and they very much deserved their award. So let’s not criticize the score, exactly, but — and alas, there’s that "but" again.

The magic of the Chaperone comes from the manner in which the authors, director, designers and everybody mine the depths of old-fashioned, pre-Pal Joey musical comedy and weave the split ends together into a delicious whole. The libretto, for example, pilfers characters from numerous sources. In creating their fictional new 1928 musical — Gable and Stein’s "Drowsy Chaperone" within the 2006 musical of the same name — they not only transfer the character types; they retain the flavor.

Adolpho, the professional gigolo, serves as a perfect example. This fellow seems to be pulled bodily from the 1932 Cole Porter musical The Gay Divorce. Eric Rhodes, that Latin Lothario born in what was then called Indian Territory and is now called Oklahoma, created Rodolfo Tonetti. Thanks to familiarity with his performance in the well-known 1934 film version of the Porter musical, one can easily compare Rodolfo with Adolpho. Which, by the way, is uproariously portrayed by Danny Burstein, one of director Casey Nicholaw’s clutch of inspired clowns. The Chaperone creators have borrowed not only the type and the function of Rodolfo; it is the flavor of the original character (and Rhodes’s screen performance) that makes Adolpho a comic gem. And that is precisely what is lacking from the highly functional score: Flavor. Take "Cold Feets," the tap-happy opening number for Robert Martin (Troy Britton Johnson — not to be confused with co-author and narrator Bob Martin) — and his pal (Eddie Korbich). The song seems patterned on any number of similar numbers, including George and Ira Gershwin’s "Fidgety Feet" from the 1926 musical Oh, Kay!, where it was (similarly) sung and danced by two featured men more or less comparing steps. "I’ve got fidgety feet, fidgety feet, fidgety feet," goes Ira’s lyric; just repeating the words aloud — even if you don’t know the music — you can see how the repeated fidgets imply a driving syncopation. "Cold feets, schmold feets, turn 'em into bold feets" has a joshing sense of humor about it, I suppose, but the music is of the generic, pseudo-twenties-dance-number variety.

This generalized flavoring, I’m sorry to say, applies just about all the way through the score. The songs are satisfactory in themselves, serving their purpose admirably. But as much as the characters capture the flavor of their role models, the songs don’t. There are those who might ask whether it is reasonable to expect song pastiches to sound good? Follies answers that question handily, although it is perhaps unfair to compare Broadway newcomers to Sondheim. But you’ll find numerous effective pastiches in the work of Kander and Ebb, Comden and Green, Strouse and Adams, and even Sandy Wilson (whose "Won’t You Charleston with Me" is so much more effective than "Cold Feets"). Jule Styne, too, who should not be confused with the putative songwriters of The Drowsy Chaperone, Jule Gable and Sidney Stein. Styne’s real name, as Bob Martin presumably knows, is Stein. Which leads one to wonder, who was Sidney Gable?

This curious combination of specifics and generalizations apparently stems from the unlikely history of the show. It started, yes, as a prenuptial entertainment in Toronto, and was gradually expanded into a mini-musical. New York producer Roy Miller picked it up, and after what appears to have been a long struggle, brought in Kevin McCollum (co-producer of Rent and Avenue Q). At this point, a Broadway sensibility seems to have been grafted onto the piece. McCollum enlisted Casey Nicholaw, of Spamalot, who under the title director/choreographer appears to have overseen an extensive transformation of the show, sharpening the book and adding gags by the gaggle.

Nicholaw, in turn, called in his Spamalot arranger Glen Kelly — the same Glen Kelly who has been widely credited (by Mel Brooks, among others) for transforming the basic songs of The Producers into an uproarious musical comedy score. Kelly’s canny arrangements strengthen the Chaperone songs, which have been further enhanced by the brass-and-sax-happy charts of Larry Blank (orchestrator of McCollum’s White Christmas and co-orchestrator of The Producers). This is not to take anything away from the songwriters, mind you; without the songs, there is nothing to arrange or orchestrate. Blank also artfully demonstrates that you can still do a full-sounding and flavorful musical comedy with today’s reduced pit orchestras; Chaperone has only 15 players, but you wouldn’t know it. Musical director/vocal arranger Phil Reno, who co-produced the sparkling CD with Joel Moss and Kurt Deutsch of Ghostlight, capably guides the performers and projects the show’s style from the podium.

But enough of this. The Drowsy Chaperone is a delight and the original cast album is a delight, even with the expressed reservations. Bob Martin, Sutton Foster, Beth Leavel, Ed Hibbert, Georgia Engel, Jennifer Smith, Lenny Wolpe, Kecia Lewis-Evans, Garth Kravits, Jason Kravits and the aforementioned players breathe life and humor into every song, so let’s leave it at that. The disc includes one cut song, "I Remember Love," a duet sung by Hibbert and Engel, which has an especially delightful comedy orchestration.

Let us add that the liner notes are as wildly conceived as the musical, with vintage photos of the cast (including a handbill for Beth Leavel as Hamlet) and the like. My favorite item, I suppose, is the album cover for that other Gable and Stein opus, "The Enchanted Nightingale" (circa 1925?), from which — judging by the song titles — Rodgers and Hammerstein apparently lifted much of The King and I (1951).

THE WEDDING SINGER [Masterworks Broadway 82876-82095]
For more than half a century, Broadway has had a place for brightly colored comic strip-type musicals such as Bye Bye Birdie. And for a couple of decades, there has been room for loud-and-brash musicals for our neighbors to the south. That is, New Jersey. The Wedding Singer, the new spring musical, easily fits both categories, and on paper it should be a natural.

But The Wedding Singer has been done in, partially, by timing. The so-called Jersey audiences are flocking to the theatre nowadays, but to see the loud-and-brash and exuberantly satisfying Jersey Boys; while Hairspray, nearing its fourth anniversary, remains top-notch musical comedy. The Wedding Singer matches neither the craft nor charm of its direct predecessors. Without the competition, I suppose it would do well enough. As things are, it is inevitably picking up the overflow audience from Jersey Boys, which is presumably sizable on weekends but not enough in itself. Even so, the lift from the colorful performance "It’s Your Wedding Day" on the Tony Awards telecast just might be enough to put The Wedding Singer over the top. Remember Smokey Joe’s Café?

The CD, from Masterworks Broadway, demonstrates that composer Matthew Sklar and lyricist Chad Beguelin are highly capable and certainly not to blame. This is the pair that wrote The Rhythm Club, the musical about a swing band in Nazi Germany that closed after a heralded tryout at the Signature Theatre in Arlington in 2000. I’ve not heard the score, but it was roundly described as being quality musical theatre.

In The Wedding Singer, they prove their worth on a handful of strong-and-effective songs. But the demands of the piece seem to have overwhelmed them. What we get is about 50% on the level of Promises, Promises, which is all to the good. But the other half of the score seems to mirror Big (in its attempts to sound contemporary, circa 1995) and Saturday Night Fever (in its attempts to sound — what, loud?). One gets the impression that this is not Sklar and Beguelin at their best; in certain slots, they seem to have shrugged and said, if this is what we have to do to finally make it to Broadway, so be it. Even if it means writing a Saturday-night-in-the-big-city song, a Wall Street greed song, one of those granny-does-hip-hop numbers and more.

The show is given a tip-top recording, from the new Sony BMG combine. Stephen Lynch, Laura Benanti, Amy Spanger and Kevin Cahoon all come off well, in some cases better than on stage. There are certain songs that are a joy to listen to repeatedly, which I can’t say of the experience of sitting at the Hirschfeld just now. Even so, Sklar and Beguelin should not be overlooked; they are clearly a talented pair.

But The Wedding Singer, despite several high spots, is in too many departments lacking. In a weaker Broadway field — such as the musicals that came and went through most of the 1990s — The Wedding Singer would probably be an easy hit. But I haven’t heard anyone come out of The Wedding Singer and say, gosh, this is even better than Jersey Boys. Or Hairspray. — Steven Suskin, author of "Second Act Trouble" [Applause Books], "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached by E-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com

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