Friday, 3 August 2007

A Monkey On A Pedestal 3/8

Well I have seen the future. Frankly it’s frightening. The year is 2037 and I am sitting alone in my flat. On the antique CD player is my battered old copy of Chess and in my mind I see Murray Head and Elaine Paige dramatically performing an argument set to music as dirndl clad chess pieces polka behind them like whirling dervishes…….


As you may suspect the truth is in fact that I have been to see The Drowsy Chaperone. Another case of a hit Broadway import failing to have the same success in the West End. This is such a shame as it really is one of the most ridiculously silly shows I have ever seen, although the silliness is balanced out by another really touching story – that of the “man in the chair”.

So let’s start with the ridiculously silly. The Drowsy Chaperone is a very funny spoof of all those twee musicals that populated Broadway and the West End in the twenties and thirties. This was a time when the stories were slight and the songs didn’t need to make sense within the context of the plot. Long lost brothers, mistaken identity, and novelty dance numbers would all feature and invariably the shows ended with either a proposal or a marriage. Romance was the cornerstone, and many songs still popular today such as Funny Valentine and I’ve Got A Crush On You all began in these inconsequential shows which provided the pop songs of the day. If an actress was starring who was known for singing grand opera arias they would b included, indeed if a performer was hired who happened to play the spoons then that may well have been introduced into the show – whatever talents they had would be utilized regardless of the suitability to the story. You only have to seek out a few of the cast recordings to realise that it really was the age of silliness in musical theatre! This show embraces those musical comedies of the twenties and thirties with brilliant effect. It really does tap every bit of comedy possible through it’s eccentric cast of characters and witty score. Even the shows big romantic number is hammed up for all its worth – but with a title like Monkey On A Pedestal it’s hardly surprising! The score isn’t by any stretch the best you will hear but it does achieve what it sets out to by lovingly sending up the Broadway of a specific era.

So what about the man in the chair exactly? Sitting alone in his apartment and playing an old record of The Drowsy Chaperone he tells us, the audience, all about this show he has never seen as the characters come to life before him. He seems to have quite a sad story. He lives alone, has a failed marriage behind him and is besotted with a young performer in the show who he only actually remembers as an old man – not the young dashing roller skater of twenties Broadway. The mundane daily occurrences get him down, as he ignores the telephone because it interrupts his listening. His only pleasure is listening to these old albums and imagining what the shows would be like. On the surface this sounds like a rather sad existence as it’s hardly a life anyone would aspire to. However, he gets such joy from these records that maybe it’s not quite so depressing after all. There are many people who, theoretically, have much more fulfilled lives who never realise the joy that this un-named man experiences. These elements counterpoint the whimsy of The Drowsy Chaperone very touchingly and its almost a case of it going from the sublime to the ridiculous! Possibly the nicest thing about The Drowsy Chaperone is how the show was born. The combination of all it’s elements certainly lead to a thoroughly satisfying evenings entertainment. Originally conceived as a wedding present for Bob Martin (the original man in the chair) the idea just grew over a period of years, as it was gradually expanded to a fully fledged musical. Sadly the show hasn’t really flourished in London – and if you have not seen it already the chance is you won’t as it closes this weekend. In New York it was a different story of course where it was the big winner at last years Tony Awards.

I have never really been a fan of Steve Pemberton who had taken over the role of the man, but in this performance he was excellent and conveyed a real pathos. Elaine Paige, in the title role, played against type in this rare comedy appearance that allowed her to send herself up in a multitude of ways, and in As I Stumble Along she had the shows catchiest number. The real find of the show is Summer Strallen, as our ingénue, who proves to be a real triple threat singing and dancing up a storm, in a performance totally in synch with the era it lampoons. I suppose all that is left to say is that I hope you are amongst those who got to see this delightful night of nonsense!

The Broadway cast recording is available but without seeing the show it’s a difficult score to love. However you could seek out the shows that inspired Drowsy and listen to one of the old shows by The Gershwins, Cole Porter or Irving Berlin – many of which have been re-recorded over the last ten years or so!

No comments: