At the beginning of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” playing through March 10 at OnStage Atlanta, the narrator (Charlie Miller) introduces us to the show’s cast of characters, a cavalcade of worn and musty 1920s musical types: the dashing hero, the Latin Lothario, the ditzy matron, the beleagured butler, the dimwitted showgirl, comic mobsters, an aviatrix and so on. “It’s not much,” he admits, “but it’s everything you need for an evening’s entertainment.”
The show derives considerable strength from this contrast: it pokes fun at these old-fashioned, silly and familiar musical-theater tropes while also demonstrating their surprising resiliency. In the end, “The Drowsy Chaperone” is silly and predictable — it’s supposed to be — but as entertaining as hell.
The show, which was a hit on Broadway in 2006, uses a simple framing device to tell an even simpler story. Our narrator, the Man in the Chair, sits alone in his apartment. He speaks to us directly about his love of old musicals and decides to play us his favorite cast recording, a dusty old double album from a 1920s Broadway musical called “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
As he does so, the show springs to life in his apartment, with all its vaudeville jokes, tap-dance routines, far-fetched situations and comic types on full display. It’s a set-up that cleverly allows the cast to offer a “Saturday Night Live”-style parody of old musicals while also letting it dive head first into the stuff that made them so charming to begin with. Sure, the songs and jokes are worn, tattered and familiar, but the show reminds us that there’s a reason they became worn, tattered and familiar. They work.
What makes the OnStage Atlanta production especially delightful is that the talented cast is fully committed to this set-up. They’re marvelously adept at both delivering the conventions — they sing and dance well — and sending them up. If a single performer conveyed doubt or misunderstanding about the show’s premise, the whole thing would die on stage.
Instead, they collectively give the ludicrous situations, silly voices, arch looks, campy songs, stale jokes and big dance numbers the momentum of a runaway train. Colleen Gaenssley does an especially good job with the choreography: group numbers achieve some big effects in their nice symmetry, movement and variety, and that’s not easy to do on a stage that seems about the size of a four-by-nine envelope.
“The Drowsy Chaperone” has several other stories that hold our interest. The Man in the Chair fills us in on some of the backgrounds of the performers — their vaudeville pasts, their backstage diva antics, their infamous endings. And we discover a bit more about the Man in the Chair’s unhappy past and why he fights loneliness and isolation with Broadway musical recordings.
“The Drowsy Chaperone” may seem unlikely to win over those who aren’t already fans of musical theater. But I dragged someone there against his will, and he left saying it was the best thing he’d seen in Atlanta in years. I suppose the framing device goes a long way toward easing audiences into an old-fashioned sort of evening. Still, there is of course undoubtedly an intractably anti-musical brigade that will remain unreachable. Which is a shame: they’ll miss out on the big monkey number.
In the end, you might accuse this show of having modest ambitions. And sure, it aims low on the brow, but who can argue when it nails the target? The narrator concludes that sometimes all we want from the theater during tough times is simply to be entertained in the company of others. And “The Drowsy Chaperone” doesn’t just satisfy that ambition, it knocks it out of the park.