Theatre haters will like Lambert’s loopy play

by Vanda Schmöckel

The Drowsy Chaperone

The Drowsy Chaperone
Globe Theatre
Opens May 22

A lonely shut-in sits in his grim apartment. Is he having an existential crisis? Is he clinically depressed? Who knows? By his own account, he’s “feeling blue”, and to perk himself up, he turns to his old standby — his record collection.

On this particular occasion, he takes out his favourite: a rare recording of the original soundtrack to the fictional 1928 musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone. And then, everything changes. His dreary apartment is instantly transformed into the set of the musical— a story populated by starlets, showgirls, gangsters, a Latin lover and an alcoholic chaperone, just to name a few.

The result is a show within a show — a meta-musical, if you will, and it’s safe to say you’ve never seen another one like it.

Who thinks this stuff up? Lisa Lambert does. Among theatre-goers, the story of The Drowsy Chaperone is almost as well known as the musical itself. In 1997, Lambert, along with writing partner Greg Morrison and Don McKellar, put together a 40-minute musical production for the stag party of their friends, actors Bob Martin and Janet van der Graaff. From that first performance at the Rivoli Club in Toronto, they went on to mount another production at the Toronto Fringe Festival the following year — with Bob Martin as the Man In Chair. Lambert and her friends were thrilled. Then the Mirvishes (Ed and David) caught wind of it, and the play eventually went on to Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre. Again, Lambert and company were ecstatic, but thought that would be the end of it.

Then, in the show’s final weeks, two producers from New York came to see it. That set the ball in motion for The Drowsy Chaperone’s winding road to Broadway — and, eventually, two Tony Awards, including best score — which went to Lambert and Morrison.

“Every incarnation of the show, we thought was the last one,” laughs Lambert over the phone from New York City. “And then somebody would see it and get it to the next stage. Every stage of the development was a surprise. When we started working on it, we just thought it would be a really good Fringe show — and that was the goal.”

Speaking with Lambert, it becomes clear how only a person such as she could cook up a story like this. She recounts countless hours tucked away in her bedroom during high school, when she’d listen to her own collection of old musicals.

“In some ways the Man In Chair is so much like me,” she says. “It’s like Bob Martin playing me. It’s a very weird experience to watch.”

And then there’s the small detail of how she supported herself for 10 years writing singing telegrams.

“I started writing singing telegrams probably around 1985,” she says. “That was sort of how people knew me. I’d be with friends, and we’d be watching TV and I’d have my telegram pile-up and people would be, like, ‘what are you writing now? And I’d be, like, ‘this one’s for Fred. He’s turning 50.’ It was just kind of my identity for a long time.”

Since its enormously successful Broadway run, The Drowsy Chaperone has gone on to charm countless audiences from Halifax to Vancouver, Japan to Denmark, and beyond.

“I’m seeing it in Germany — in German — in a week and a half,” Lambert says. “And it’s going to be in Brazil in August. So, it’s taken on such a life of its own. I watch it and I can’t even understand it,” she laughs.

Which brings it to its next exotic destination: at the Globe Theatre in Regina. Winnipeg-based director Robb Paterson is helming the production with Jennifer Lyon playing the titular role originated by Lambert. It’s easily the most laconic character in the show — a woman charged with the care of a bride-to-be who’s too drunk for the job. When I speak with Lyon and Paterson, they’re still early in the rehearsal stage, and Lyon is working through her characterization of the chaperone.

“Basically, I’m taking whatever influence I’ve had in my life from watching all my comedy heroes,” she says. “The other day Kathleen Turner came out of my voice — and I was doing this sort of mid-Atlantic thing, but it was like a man,” she says. “Kathleen Turner had shown up.”

Paterson says part of the virtue of the show — and what has made it such a huge hit — is the full use of its 13-member cast.

“Everyone gets their moment to shine,” he says. “It’s every ‘type’ you can think of in musical comedy. There’s a grande-dame, there’s a flakey show-girl, there are two wise-cracking gangsters. There’s tap dancing, soft shoe, spit-takes, melodrama, a love story – forget about it! It’s the best!”

Most of all, it’s hysterically funny. In many ways, The Drowsy Chaperone is a musical to end all musicals: If you like musicals, you’re going to love it, because it celebrates all the traditions of the musical theatre. But even if you hate musicals, you’re going to love it — because it sends up a lot of the genre’s more irksome elements in clever and funny ways.

“It’s sort of designed for people who are frustrated by musicals,” Lambert says. “It basically examines the experience of watching a musical, so if you don’t like them, it helps you understand why. And if you do like them, it helps you understand why. At least that was our intention.”

It’s the play that changed Lambert’s life. When we speak, she’s taken a break from a read-through of a first draft of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day — a musical adaptation she’s working on with Greg Morrison. Winning a Tony Award has, understandably, made it a lot easier for a Lambert to make her way in the world.

“It’s a great calling card. Especially since I’m living in New York now and there’s so much respect for the Tony Awards. Like, people will introduce me: ‘She’s a Tony award winner’. Like it’s a definition of me. It used to be ‘Lisa Lambert — she writes singing telegrams,’” she says. “It’s sort of replaced that now.”