The Drowsy Chaperone, a classic case of a sleeper emerging as a Broadway smash hit, is a giddy, light-hearted musical that, in the currently stylish self-referential manner, is also a pointed commentary on musical theater itself. In that sense, it calls to mind the brilliant Urinetown, but in a far lighter vein.
The host, identified only as "Man in Chair," (a confident and droll performance by Bob Martin), is presumably gay (source of some amusing asides) and an avid devotee of musical comedy. He invites the audience into his escapist world by playing a recording of a (fictional) 1928 musical, The Drowsy Chaperone. The main setting of his studio apartment magically morphs into the various scenes of the show, seamlessly designed by David Gallo, with equally clever and amusing costuming by Gregg Barnes.
Of course, as Man in Chair is the first to admit in his running commentary, all the characters are two dimensional and the story exists only to connect the production numbers. But The Drowsy Chaperone is genuinely inspired silliness and even Man in Chair admits to some of its less than funny excesses, such as an overdone scene in which Mrs. Tottendale (Georgia Engel, widely remembered from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and a delight in this performance with bouncing curls and a positively ghastly dress) repeatedly spits in the face of an "Underling."
The subject matter, such as it is, of the musical within the play, is the wedding of star performer Janet Van De Graff (Sutton Foster) to Robert Martin (Troy Britton Johnson). A couple of henchman, representing a gangster who invested in the show in which Van De Graff is playing, are pressuring the producer to stop the wedding so that Van De Graff will not drop out of the show. And then there are the bride’s own jitters about marrying a man she barely knows. Add in some classic stock characters: a heavy-drinking sophisticate, known only as "The Drowsy Chaperone," (Beth Leavel in an engagingly comical performance), the producer’s dumb chorus girl squeeze (Jennifer Smith), a frazzled wedding planner (Eddie Korbich), a greaseball European lothario (Danny Burstein), even an Amelia Earhart-style aviatrix (gloriously big-voiced Kecia Lewis-Evans).
With a couple of show stopping numbers (in particular, "Show Off") and the sheer absurdity of one song sung by the groom on roller skates and blindfolded, it’s all an unabashed excursion into nostalgia, saved from being cloyingly sappy by the once-removed sense of irony and the sheer high spirits of the ensemble cast. Man in Chair asserts that going to theater is about escaping from the miseries of day-to-day life. We "don’t want the fourth wall crashing down on us," he says. The Drowsy Chaperone fits his prescription perfectly.