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Musical lovers’ delight; TV star’s ascension

The Drowsy Chaperone

Marquis Theatre

1535 Broadway at 45th St.

Mon.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. 2 p.m.

$25-$110; 212-307-4100

The Caine Mutiny

Court-Martial

Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

236 W. 45th St.

Tue.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. 2 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.

$47.25-$96.25; 212-239-6200

Bob Martin (Man in Chair) and Beth Leavel (The Chaperone) in “The Drowsy Chaperone”—a musical lover’s dream literally come true.

To purloin from Shakespeare, anyone passionate about musicals knows well their power to “soothe the savage breast.” Musical lovers also know that there isn’t a single moment in life that can’t be improved, explained, or experienced more poignantly through the right original cast album. From joy to heartbreak and everything in between, there’s a song from some musical that always fits. Musical lovers are very often considered freaks to those who don’t get it.

Well, there’s vindication for those who turn to the musical for inspiration and solace. It’s the splendid new show “The Drowsy Chaperone,” an unabashed valentine to the musical form and its seductive ability to make sense of life and put it in perspective through song and dance. Written with abundant warmth and humor by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, the show opens in the dark as a character known only as Man in Chair talks about theater, life, and the need for this kind of entertainment to alleviate gloom. He puts on the record of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a fictitious musical, and suddenly his drab apartment springs to life as the characters he can only imagine appear on the stage.

“The Drowsy Chaperone,” ostensibly from 1928, is the goofy kind of musical popularized by Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse, when shows were cobbled together from old vaudeville acts, matinee idols, and an abiding silliness that tickle the heartstrings. The something-for-everyone amalgam of entertainment that made up the musicals of the period is both innocent and knowing, and for all its seemingly dated style still manages to communicate the essential truths—things will turn out all right in the end, and love always wins. Of course we know it’s complete fiction, but it’s wonderful to pretend for the time it takes to listen to a recording. There is a moment when Martin, who also plays Man in Chair, throws his head back and loses himself in the soundtrack. It feels real because many of us have been there—and go there often.

It is this balance between the real and the musical world that gives this show its charm; it’s a perfectly up to date way of saying entertainment can’t alter reality, but perhaps can make it more palatable. With songs by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, the score is a precise pastiche of the period that gets all of the novelty numbers, love songs, anthems, and ballads just right—all with a knowing wink and a nod to contemporary reality.

Martin is sublime as he loses himself in the world of the show. At one moment, unseen by the characters, he mimes the big 11 o’clock musical number along with the record, and it is silly and sweet; it’s as if he is telling the secret we all know. The musical lovers among us have all done that before.

In addition to Martin, the knock-out cast includes Sutton Foster as Janet Van De Graaff, a star of the Feldzieg Follies, who is leaving show biz for the love of a toothpaste model, the handsome Robert Martin. Foster is deliciously over the top, and looks smashing in Gregg Barnes’ wonderful costumes. Troy Britton Johnson as Martin is charismatically cardboard, and sings my favorite song from the show, “Accident Waiting to Happen,” blindfolded on roller skates. It’s a detail that’s perfect for the period of the show and completely charming. Eddie Korbich is great as the best man George. Beth Leavel is terrific as the eponymous Chaperone, and the character roles are perfectly played by Edward Hibbert and Georgia Engel—a comedy pair doing “spit takes”—and Jason and Garth Kravits as two gangsters.

This late-season entry was worth waiting for. It is the wittiest, warmest, and most thoroughly engaging musical of the season—a true hit you won’t be able to resist, even if you’re among the poor unfortunates who don’t’ get that musicals are a kind of religion.

The TV show “Friends” was to me one of the most unwatchable and moronic sitcoms of all time. It made my flesh crawl, though I realize that I am in the minority here. So, when one of the stars of the show, David Schwimmer, was announced to be taking on the part originated by Henry Fonda in “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” I was nonplussed.

Today, I’m very much plussed, as it were. Schwimmer turns in a beautifully understated and compelling performance in a solid and engaging revival that is well worth seeing. As defense lawyer Barney Greenwald, Schwimmer is consistently riveting in what is essentially a quiet but compelling play that is long on talk and short on action.

The play is a dramatization of a section of Herman Wouk’s classic bestseller, “The Caine Mutiny.” It is the courtroom scenes in which a young lieutenant is court-martialed for relieving one Captain Queeg from duty as the ship they were on was caught in a typhoon. It is nothing more on paper than a series of examinations and cross-examinations as the defense and the prosecution present their cases.

Under the exceptional direction of Jerry Zaks, however, the play takes on a resonance for today’s world that is subtle but powerful. At the heart of the play are such themes as manipulation for selfish ends, the desire for power, mental stability, willful blindness, and the nature of truth. Set as the play is against the backdrop of World War II, it nonetheless has absolute relevance to today as we question the U.S.’s current role in the world. This is not a trumpeting political statement, but rather is a more quiet contemplation of the uses and abuses of power. As such, it becomes very moving, especially when issues such as national pride, ethics, and human choice are factored in. Sadly, it seems more palatable in this 60-year-old guise. In its own way, it as compelling as “Stuff Happens” because it makes us think behind the facts to the larger human issues involved—and whether ends ever can justify means.

The rest of the cast is every bit as strong as Schwimmer. Tim Daly gives a solid and commanding performance as prosecutor John Challee. The nuanced relationship between the two lawyers is artfully done as well. As Captain Queeg, Zeljko Ivanek turns in one of the finest performances of the year, with a vocal cadence eerily similar to Bush’s—and a subtext that is masterful.

Zaks has rounded out the evening beautifully with performances from the secondary characters that show a range of human perception, experience, and interpretation. It’s a rich world with the wonderfully written small characters played by Geoffrey Nauffts, Paul David Story, Ben Fox, Brian Reddy, and Tom Nelis in particular, making this world at once a picture of a time gone by and a stirring story that profits from the retelling.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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