Monday, October 15, 2018

Diversions: The Drowsy Chaperone and Sherlock’s Last Case

The cast of Goodspeed Opera House's production of The Drowsy Chaperone. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The Drowsy Chaperone is one of the high points in twenty-first-century American musical theatre. First produced on Broadway in 2006 in a rambunctious, irresistible production that is still the best thing director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw has ever done, it’s a parody of a 1920s musical comedy framed, ingeniously, by a commentary by a middle-aged musicals buff known as Man in Chair. The conceit is that this character, who finds most contemporary theatre unsatisfying – and the modern world exasperating – is sitting alone in his apartment, trying to coax himself out of the blues by listening to his favorite show recording, of a silly, lighthearted musical called The Drowsy Chaperone. Bob Martin, who wrote the book along with his fellow Canadian, Don McKellar, was the original Man in Chair; the ebullient, sometimes loony songs are by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, and the lyrics often make you laugh out loud – a genuine rarity.

The Goodspeed Opera House has chosen the show as its season closer, and their revival, deftly staged by Hunter Foster and wittily choreographed by Chris Bailey on a set by Howard Jones that manages to make the limited playing space look roomy, is a complete success. The singing and dancing are easily up to the Goodspeed’s high standards, and almost the entire ensemble conveys the style with finesse. The standouts in the cast are Stephanie Rothenberg as Janet Van de Graaff, the recently retired stage star and uncertain bride; Clyde Alves (a memorable Ozzie in the last Broadway revival of On the Town) as her jocular groom, Robert Martin (a bit of self-homage on the part of the co-book writer); John Rapson as Aldolpho, a professional gigolo hired by Janet’s producer (James Judy) to seduce her away from Robert so he can feature her in his next production and repay his loan to a pair of gangsters (Blakely and Parker Slaybaugh); and Jennifer Allen as the title character, a dipsomaniac who is supposed to take charge of – and dispense advice to – Janet. The cast also includes Tim Falter as Robert’s best man, George; Danielle Lee Greaves as Trix, an aviatrix who appears randomly on the estate where the wedding is about to take place and sticks around to perform it; Ruth Gottschall as the hostess, a ditzy debutante; Jay Aubrey Jones as her butler, Underling; and Ruth Pferdehirt as a chorine anxious to replace Janet in the producer’s new show. A few of the supporting players push a little, but only Jones strains uncomfortably, possibly because he’s miscast.

If you’ve seen the Broadway version, you can hear Bob Martin’s distinctive style – neurotic, his tone wavering between cynicism and faint hope – in Man in Chair’s monologues. John Scherer does a perfectly adequate job with them, but he’s somewhat artificial, a choice that any of the actors in the show within the show are welcome to make but that feels like a bit of a cheat when it comes from the narrator. Scherer is best in the last section, when we get a sense of how invested the character is in this late-twenties musical. I think it’s a tricky role. Martin himself never got at its heart, though he was so funny that you weren’t disappointed – or at least I wasn’t, perhaps partly, too, because I was encountering the material for the first time. The student group in the Theatre Department at College of the Holy Cross, where I teach, produced the musical some years ago (rendering it with considerable charm) and the young actor who played Man in Chair accomplished what Martin hadn’t: he made the character’s love of The Drowsy Chaperone touchingly authentic. I looked for that quality in Scherer’s performance, and I felt he achieved it, finally, at the end.

The other roles invite the actors to display their panache and polish in challenging number after challenging number. The highlights in the Goodspeed production are Rothenberg’s “Show Off,” where the performer has to present an exhausting assemblage of show-biz talents without looking exhausted; “Accident Waiting to Happen,” which Alves (in duet with Rothenberg) roller-skates around the stage blindfolded; and Allen’s relentlessly upbeat solo, “As We Stumble Along.” And absolutely everything John Rapson does as Aldolpho, in a performance that takes off (as the writers intended) from Erik Rhodes’s turn as Tonetti in the 1934 Astaire-Rogers musical The Gay Divorcee, in which he uttered the deathless lines, “Your wife is safe with Tonetti. He prefers spaghetti” and “Chance is the fool’s name for fate.” (The latter is almost as hilariously impenetrable as a Groucho Marx quip.) Rapson does honor to his predecessor.

When the Goodspeed is really cooking, it can make those of us who live close enough to think of it as a local regional theatre feel like unreasonably lucky bastards. It’s hard to imagine how Gregg Barnes’s costumes, for instance, could be improved upon. The second act begins with a number called “Message from a Nightingale” in which several members of the ensemble pop up in extravagantly ridiculous oriental outfits. The number, somewhat daringly, burlesques a kind of racially caricatured musical theatre that is elaborately, outrageously inappropriate in the twenty-first century, and it makes you gasp even as Man in Chair’s commentary critiques it. There’s no other circumstance besides parody that would give a designer the go-ahead to come up with costumes like these; you can sense Barnes’s delight in being given the assignment. It’s hard to envision an audience that wouldn’t have a great time at this Drowsy Chaperone.

Rufus Collins as Sherlock Holmes in Huntington Theatre Company's Sherlock's Last Case. (Photo: T.. Charles Erickson)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle could hardly have known, when he wrote his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887, that he had started an avalanche that would keep gathering momentum long after his death more than forty years later. There have been enough iterations of the Holmes legend – in print and on stage, film and television – to keep generations of fans satisfied far into the future. The Sherlock play currently playing at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, Sherlock’s Last Case, is a revival of a little-known dramatization by Charles Marowitz, initially produced in London at the Open Space (where Marowitz served as artistic director) and in New York in 1987. (Frank Langella played Holmes on Broadway.) The Huntington has given it a handsome production, staged by Maria Aitken and designed by Hugh Landwehr (sets), Fabio Toblini (costumes) and Philip S. Rosenberg (lighting), but the play itself is misguided, and ultimately not much fun.

It’s because Sherlock’s Last Case isn’t much fun that it’s misguided. Marowitz has fallen into what I think of as the Robin and Marian trap. Richard Lester’s 1976 movie suggests an autumnal chapter in the Robin Hood story that was probably meant to be melancholy and affecting but comes across as sour-spirited, as if the screenwriter, James Goldman, couldn’t resist the temptation to show up the legend as a fake. Conan Doyle certainly provided enough material in the Holmes stories – the protagonist’s cocaine addiction and bouts of depression – to prompt writers who have taken up the character after its inventor’s death to investigate some of the darker corners of his life; the recent updated TV adaptations, Sherlock in England and Elementary in the U.S., have done so, mostly with success. But the relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson that Marowitz imagines, where Holmes’s high-handedness and neglect of Watson have provoked deep resentment, is neither interesting nor profound – just a wet blanket thrown over a beloved entertainment. The plotting is clever; the play contains its fair share of surprises. But the depiction of Watson’s bitterness – a far cry from the justified anger Martin Freeman’s version exhibits toward Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes in some episodes of Sherlock , which demands that the great detective struggle to win back his friendship – turns the play unpleasantly acrid, with a truly terrible final curtain.

Rufus Collins gives an energetic performance as Holmes, his physical agility working wittily against his cadaverous countenance. But as Watson, Mark Zeisler is defeated by the way Marowitz has written the role; he’s stuck with only a few notes, none of them tuneful. Since both Inspector Lestrade and the men’s loyal housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, are closer to Conan Doyle’s conception, Malcolm Ingram and Jane Ridley appear to be enjoying themselves far more in these roles than Zeisler is in his.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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