Now that the coveted Tony Awards for Best of the 2005-’06 season have been given out, it is probably a good time to put the most lauded of them in perspective. Notwithstanding my own subjective opinions as to their quality, entertainment value, significance, or value received for the investment of time and dollars, these are two shows that are commanding a lot of attention and strong public support. It seems that every spring, Broadway becomes the recipient of a flurry of British imports, usually plays previously produced in the West End that have been awarded prizes and accolades and that carry with them an aura of worthiness if not also a bit of snob appeal.
The big winner from the Isles was "The History Boys." It won the Tony for Best Play and also picked up additional Tonys for Best Director (Nicholas Hytner); Best Leading Actor (Richard Griffiths); Best Supporting Actress (Frances de la Tour) and Best Scenic Design (Bob Crowley). By and large, musicals have been reclaimed by the USA with the dark horse entry "The Drowsy Chaperone," proving to be the biggest surprise and delight of the season (also winning five Tonys), although "Jersey Boys" (previously reviewed) took the top award for Best New Musical.
"The History Boys"
Alan Bennett’s intellectually observant but culturally distant play was far from being my favorite Broadway play of the season. That distinction goes to Martin McDonagh’s "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" (previously reviewed). Nevertheless, the merits of "The History Boys" have prevailed, particularly its theme regarding the effects that two professors with distinctly different approaches to education have on a class of exceptionally bright students in a northern Great Britain high school during the mid-1980s. But it is also about Bennett’s ability to frame his amusing thesis about the often conflicting methods and goals of education around an utterly implausible, if not entirely ludicrous, plot device.
At the heart of the play is the portly and irrepressibly deconstructive English master Hector (Richard Griffiths, known to moviesgoers as Uncle Vernon in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"), whose charges he hopes will reap the rewards of his own social and literary biases, sentimental references, and illusions and impart his disdain for the mere accumulation of facts.
He is more tolerated than admired by the faculty, even as the more traditional-minded teacher Mrs. Lintoff (Frances de la Tour) seems irrepressibly impressed by the humanities being addressed in Hector’s often eccentric and loosely-defined syllabus. When the school’s headmaster (Clive Merrison) finds himself under pressure to have more of his students excel in their exams in order to qualify for admittance to the prestigious Oxford and Cambridge, he hires Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore), a no-nonsense history scholar with a particular skill for preparing students for tough exams. It isn’t surprising that Irwin’s attempts to straighten out Hector’s randomly structured studies with his more rigid techniques for learning are soon complicated by his own growing fascination with Hector’s methodology. Matters become more troublesome for Hector when his penchant for after-school "fiddling" with his 18-year-olds is disclosed and he faces being discharged.
The students apparently take Hector’s mildly deviant behavior in their stride as it only occurs to those who benefit from a lift home on his motorcycle. One is hard pressed not to laugh at the mere thought of a 300-pound man racing through town with one hand guiding the cycle and the other hand, well, you get the picture. The plot’s most endearing moments include those in which the boys re-enact scenes from old romantic films like "Now Voyager" and "Brief Encounter," as they demonstrate the benefits of a diametrically opposed to tradition theory of teaching. While all the boys are vividly individualized and disarmingly portrayed, our attention is primarily fixed on Posner (Samuel Barnett), a lad who humorously expresses his infatuation for the sexually beguiling Dakin (Dominic Cooper) singing "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered." Dakin, in turn, is not above attempting any number of seductions including Irwin.
Director Nicholas Hytner has his work cut out keeping the boys and the faculty racing through the play’s many brief and choppy scenes and through designer Bob Crowley’s rather clumsily maneuvered sets. The use of projections showing the students going to and from classes are an unnecessary distraction. The play veers off into a melodramatic denouement and a sappy finish not recalled since "Tom Brown’s School Days." But there is nothing sappy about Ms. de la Tour’s tour de force performance as the self-assured history professor who wittily takes exception to the role of men of history: "History is women following behind with the bucket." **
"The History Boys," through Wednesday, September 20, with a possible extension, the Broadhurst Theater, 235 West 44th Street. $96.25 to $46.25. 212-239-6200.
"The Drowsy Chaperone"
If you’re talented, writing a little comedic gem as an entertainment to be performed at a friend’s wedding is a clever and wonderful idea. William Shakespeare did just when he wrote "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" 500 years ago. We can be grateful to the collaborating team of Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison, and Don McKellar who wrote "The Drowsy Chaperone" as a brief little pastiche of a 1920s musical to help celebrate the wedding of Bob Martin and Janet van de Graaf, their friends in the Toronto theater community.
The little skit with characters affectionately called Bob and Janet was developed into a full-length show that went on to commercial success in Canada and on the West Coast before coming to Broadway with little fanfare but excellent word of mouth. Its story of a lonely man who finds comfort and joy in his old musical theater albums is warming the hearts of everyone and tickling the funny bone of almost everyone who sees it.
No one likes to be kept in the dark, literally that is, but that’s what happens to the audience during the first couple of minutes of "The Drowsy Chaperone." But those minutes quickly become precious, funny, and comforting as an unseen voice invokes a wish for all theatergoers: that the show we are about to see won’t bore us, will be brief, and will be above all entertaining. It is spoken by Man in Chair (Bob Martin), our guide into his private world and into an era he cherishes, the musicals of the 1920s.
It doesn’t take long after the lights come up on the modest but roomy apartment for us to feel Martin’s affection and enthusiasm for musicals that lift him out of his melancholy and transport him to another place, much like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz." It doesn’t take a tornado, only his playing of a recording of his favorite musical – "The Drowsy Chaperone," to begin the transformation of his apartment into an all-dancing-all-singing-all-comedy musical. Don’t be concerned that cast recordings were not made of musicals in the 1920s. Suspension of disbelief is part of the fun.
Immediately endearing in his old cardigan and self-effacing manner, Martin is not above becoming an active participant in this deliriously exuberant entertainment created by composer and lyricist Lambert and Morrison and book writers Bob Martin and Don McKellar.
The Lambert-Morrison score bubbles with tuneful originality as well as with wittily resourceful illusions to the past. Of course, the plot of the show within the show is as inane and inconsequential as you might expect, but it is designed as spoof after all and as such it broadly pokes fun at the genre. But it also sensitively incorporates the importance of this diversion in the life of the Man in the Chair. It is Martin’s eagerness to share with us his passion that propels this musical. Much of the delight of this show also comes from director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who extravagantly populates the stage with principals, singers, and dancers but with the double-edged wit of being in two distinct but complimentary universes.
A musical can only be as good as the performers in it. So it helps that each of the 13 extraordinarily talented performers plus the ensemble light up the stage in number after number. As soon as Martin lowers that needle onto the vinyl ("remember records"?) set designer David Gallo, lighting designers Ken Billington and Brian Monahan go to work replacing Martin’s drab apartment with the splashy trappings befitting an estate hosting the impending marriage of glamorous leading lady Janet Van De Graaff (Sutton Foster) to comely tap-dancing beau Robert Martin (Troy Britton Johnson). Foster, who has an apparent affinity for the flapper era (Tony for "Thoroughly Modern Millie"), dazzles us with her flair for broad comedy and acrobatic dancing (in "Show Off," a show-stopping exercise in exhibitionism). Problems arise from theater producer (Lenny Wolpe), who is not pleased to learn that his star Janet is going to give up the theater. And he has to contend with Kitty (Jennifer Smith), the producer’s untalented girlfriend. Smith’s performance renews our affection for the irrepressibly dopey chorus girl.
Vamping through the show with booze-intoxicated extravagance, Beth Leavel is hilarious as the self-aggrandizing title character (politely referred to a person under the influence during the Prohibition Era), who is assigned to keep the bride from seeing the groom before the wedding. That she isn’t exactly capable of fulfilling her assignment allows room for the best man (Eddie Korbich); an inept seducer (Danny Burnstein); two gangsters in the guise of pastry chefs (Jason and Garth Kravits); a dotty matron (Georgia Engel and her tolerant butler (Edward Hibbert), and even an aviatrix (Kecia Lewis-Evans) to complicate matters and to wow us their delightfully daffy antics. It’s all in fun, but you will also find your spirits lifted along with The Man in the Chair. ***
"The Drowsy Chaperone," the Marquis Theater, 1535 Broadway at 45th Street. $25 to $110. 212-307-4100.
The key: **** Don’t miss; *** You won’t feel cheated; ** Maybe you should have stayed home; * Don’t blame us.