Arts » Feature

Jonathan Crombie

Canadian Ranger in a Cardigan


1 comment

Fanciers of nostalgia, eccentricity, obsession, and sheer nerdiness are in for a treat as the weirdest of musicals, The Drowsy Chaperone, shimmies into town next Tuesday. Beginning as a humorous, affectionate homage to those ancient musicals -- birthed by operetta and barely out of the cradle -- Chaperone has evolved from party sketch to Broadway mutant.

We discovered that the chiffon-voiced Georgia Engel (Ted Baxter's spouse on the classic Mary Tyler Moore Show) isn't the only vestige of the Broadway Chaperone who is escorting the touring version. Jonathan Crombie, whose American debut was as the iconic Man in Chair, taking over for Bob Martin (who also co-wrote the book), is also on-board.

It is the Man in Chair who unsheathes the dog-eared original cast album of The Drowsy Chaperone, presented to us as a 1928 vintage treasure known only the purest musical aficionados. The cardigan-clad collector is taking us into his confidence, but the maudlin mood of his musty study is shattered as the moribund musical springs back to life.

As it turns out, Crombie, a native Canadian, has a much longer history with this Canadian creation -- and with Martin -- than anyone else on tour.

Creative Loafing: Am I right in identifying Drowsy Chaperone as not only your first Broadway show, but also your first musical?

Jonathan Crombie: No, I've done a couple of musicals. I did Godspell, and actually I am in a sketch comedy group with Bob Martin and Lisa Lambert, who wrote the songs. We were in a group called Skippy's Rangers. This is also how it started. The Drowsy Chaperone title started a long, long time ago -- like 20 years ago. When we sat around in Skippy's Rangers, we talked about it. We would do little musicals, and our sketch comedy is very much musical-based. I'm not trained musically although officially, I do get to say I sing and dance in a Broadway musical -- even though my singing is off-key in my dancing is horrible, and I'm not supposed to be good at either of them!

So let's trace your involvement in Chaperone ...

I was at the original bachelor party for Bob, and at that point, I couldn't be in a lot of rehearsals. So they just stuck a big chef hat on me, and I played a chef in one scene. Then we did the fringe show, which was our Fringe Festival production. At that point, it was just the Drowsy Chaperone musical itself. Once it started at the Fringe, that's when Bob came in, and they decided to go ahead with the framing device of using the Man in Chair to kind of introduce the musical and talk about the musical.

That's when the first general audience got a view of it, and I think there was a review of it in Variety at that point.

So the layers that we see onstage are actually successive layers in the creation of The Drowsy Chaperone, like rings on a tree?

Very much so. Different songs have come and gone. Different characters have come and gone. Routines have come and gone. This version, though, is by far the most accessible and dazzling. I mean, when [director] Casey Nicholaw came in -- the choreography he brought and just the sensibility of making it a Broadway show. Without dampening the sort of gentle humor that the show has itself. It really is a great incarnation -- I think the best incarnation of the show.

Had you done the bulk of your TV work in Canada?

That's how I started. I started doing television right out of high school, basically, and then was offered the chance to join the young company at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. I went there and kind of started my romance with the theater.

Anne of Green Gables, which is what you're most noted for, was produced in Canada?

It's a Canadian story, and that's what I went into in high school. And I don't want to say "most known" for that. I guess it's become a children's classic, so it's widely known. I was in high school, actually, doing a play, and the casting agent came and saw the show. And she was auditioning basically every curly-haired guy between the ages of 15 and 20, probably. So I went in and read for that and got it. It's such a beloved story that it did really well.

From there, I was all set to go to university for my journalism degree at Huron College. I've always loved acting, but when that started, I got another part in a film, and from then on, came the agent. Then I started in that direction.

Describe the show for those who haven't seen it and how the layer that you participate in sort of makes it all pop.

That is the question, to explain it. Because I was talking with someone awhile ago, and they said, "Whenever you try to explain it, you always end up going, 'You may not like it, but trust me.'" My favorite thing about it is that a lot of people say that it's a musical for musical lovers. And it is. Anybody who loves musicals, especially the old musicals -- or just musicals of all different eras -- will love it. They'll love the style of the songs, will love the in-jokes, will love what's being portrayed.

I also think it's the best musical for people who hate musicals. Because for all the people who white-knuckle their way through a musical -- the songs are silly and fun enough that they're just ingratiating and kind of irresistible. The Man in the Chair device allows the musical to be offered in a way that gives it a hipness and a freshness and an actual perspective that I think is really good for those people who don't know musicals -- or are intimidated by musicals or bored by musicals.

The character itself is the sort of person who grew up listening to musicals. So a lot of his imagination, and a lot of the way he looked at the world, was filtered through musicals, listening to all the magic that those musicals create. Once he got older, and the world really wasn't what he thought it was, you see him in a stage of his life where he's just clinging to that.

It's like the cardigan he wears. He wraps himself up in those musicals to be able to live in that world that he wants to live in. But it's not maudlin. It's not a poignant play about lonely people that listen to records. It's a silly romp of a play, but it has that sensibility and perspective of someone who so desperately wants to offer a world to the people he's speaking to. To say Shouldn't the world be like this?

What about Jonathan Crombie's world -- is this your first touring engagement?

It really is. I'm a Canadian boy that went down to New York, and I got offered the tour. I've been to Florida a couple of times and Grand Canyon, but yeah, I don't know The States, so this is a totally new, great experience. To me, this fits like a glove. I've never wanted to own a house, I don't like being in the same place for long, I don't like personal surroundings -- I like impersonal surroundings! I'm the lightest packer in the world. So everything so far has been incredibly smooth, like I've really taken to it.