The Drowsy Chaperone just keeps Bob-blin' along life's funny highway, doesn't it?
These days at the Marriott Marquis, you'll find TV's Bob Saget doing his stand-up as Man in Chair — your erudite, eccentric, sedentary tour guide through musical-theatre minutiae of the '20s. It's a part created on page and on stage by Bob Martin, who Tony-contended on both counts, winning for musical-book co-author and also-running for the portrayal itself.
Actually, Martin didn't "create" the character as much as he fastidiously crocheted it and then custom-tailored it to his own particular, peculiar needs. So why, you have to ask, does it wear so well on Saget, who plays it with his own wide-eyed goofy wonderment (and was getting standing ovations with it at his second-ever performance on Broadway)?
Simple, says Saget — although he didn't initially think it would be, after seeing Martin do the role recently up in Toronto. They went out to dinner afterwards, and Martin stopped Saget's trepidation in its tracks: "'No,' he said, 'you're perfect — you're a monologist. The comfort level of the audience is already there. Basically, this is a giant monologue, with asides.' I love asides — those little roads you go down — it's how I do my comedy anyway." There are lots of back roads in this role — riffs and tangents that Man in Chair takes to teach You in Audience as fully as possible about The Drowsy Chaperone, some forgotten Broadway fluff so dear to his heart he insists on sharing it, sparing you nothing in his love offering. Given the seating capacity of the Marquis, that's a one-on-1,586 relationship, and you are all crammed into his seedy, nostalgia-stacked cold-water flat, where the show going on in his head suddenly materializes when he puts the phonograph needle to his two-disc set.
Had this rickety old relic really opened on Broadway — at the Morosco at 217 W. 45th St., where the Marriott now stands — it would, come next Sept. 18, be 80 years old. But the now-wizened original cast — 12 principals, plus an ensemble of eight — returns younger than springtime, as Man in Chair imagines them, to illustrate his points without ever interacting with them.
"I don't get anything back from anybody," Saget points out. "Early on, a couple of cast members came up to me and, essentially, said, 'We can't look at you. We can't touch you. We can't speak to you or acknowledge you in any way, but we're totally there for you.'"
This is when it comes in handy, having been a monologist who plays to an audience and no one else. Another thing that serves him well is his history on television. He headed "Full House" for eight years, and also put in eight years as the host of "America's Funniest Home Videos," providing comic lead-ins to the submitted film clips. Last year he resumed hosting duties on network TV via "1 vs. 100," a trivia-style game show. It did well enough to come back for seconds. He filmed eight new episodes before heading for Broadway and will "sneak away" to lens more if needed before his run ends in February.
Man in Chair couldn't be a more perfect host, twisting himself into a pretzel to please you (possibly even to convert you to his point of view). Some of his flash-forward footnotes are quirky, if not downright queasy — but Martin and co-writer Don McKellar are shrewdly echoing real-life references. Just for instance: Percy Hyman (Troy Britton Johnson), who plays the altar-bound hero, hit Saget close to home:
"You know where Man in Chair says they wheel [Hyman] in and he has that wide-eyed expression of pain and suffering that God reserves for the very, very old on their birthday — the one that goes 'Who are you? Who am I? And why is this cake on fire?' Bob Martin told me 'The Cake on Fire' was the name of a video on 'America's Funniest Home Videos.' He was thinking of that video when he wrote it and when he says it. I remember it, too. There were too many candles, and the icing caught fire, and this old man was trying to blow it out. Bob said, 'You are already in the show.'"
Saget made his first appearance on a New York stage at Second Stage in spring of 2005 in Privilege, playing a prison-bound inside trader — and family man. At his last performance, Bob Boyett bopped by. "He was an exec producer of 'Full House,' and he's since become Mr. Broadway. It's what he always wanted to do. He's the one who invited me aboard."
Now, Saget's sitting pretty between two sitcom worlds, "Full House" and "Empty Nest" — all by his lonesome as Man in Chair but able to conjure up a house full of fantasy figures.