Where's Charley? review
Where's Charley? Review - Broadway musicalThe most scrumptious English tea, with precisely cut cucumber sandwiches, warm scones, fresh clotted cream and a cake tray piled high, could hardly be more satisfying than the sweet, silly, thoroughly enchanting revival of the 1948 musical “Where’s Charley?,” at City Center through Sunday. The British director John Doyle’s staging of this rarely seen Frank Loesser show for Encores! is impeccable on every level, one of the most fully realized productions that this concert musicals series has presented in recent seasons.
The singing is heavenly, the acting deft and effortlessly charming. Subtle matters of accent and style are perhaps the toughest test for a wholly American cast romping through this unmistakably English material, based on the hugely popular 1892 farce “Charley’s Aunt,” by Brandon Thomas. Here, too, Mr. Doyle and his cast, which features little-known performers in the roles of the young lovers, alongside estimable veterans like Rebecca Luker and Howard McGillin, emerge triumphant.
The Briton sitting behind me didn’t exactly erupt into cheers of “By Jove, I think they’ve got it!” as this spirited production reached its romantic conclusion, but he came pretty close.
When an oddity or rarity is on the bill at a concert staging of a musical, you often emerge pleased at having heard the score presented in full but also convinced that the songs would have fared better without the leaden baggage of that exasperating, dated or absurd book. The opposite is the case here. Even with this, his first full score for a Broadway musical, Loesser was writing songs that emerge from the dramatic moment at hand and precisely reflect the period and place in which the show is set. With its skillful echoes of the British music hall and operetta, the score blooms onstage as it doesn’t entirely on a recording. (Because of a strike, a Broadway cast recording of the original production, starring Ray Bolger, was never made; the London cast recording features Norman Wisdom in Bolger’s role.)
The confectionary plot, which often recalls a sugar-coated variation on Oscar Wilde’s later “Importance of Being Earnest,” is classic farce turning on that sturdy staple of British comedy: the cross-dressing man. The Oxford students Charley Wykeham (Rob McClure) and his best pal, Jack Chesney (Sebastian Arcelus), have invited their sweethearts to their rooms for tea, hoping to further their already advanced romantic interests. A proper female chaperone is expected to arrive in the form of Charley’s aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez, a widow who has long lived in Brazil.
Peril impends when a note comes announcing that her visit must be put off. But with Charley in convenient possession of a dowager costume for a student theatrical, a plan is hatched for him to impersonate his own aunt. He spends the rest of a frenetic afternoon wooing his beloved, Amy Spettigue (Lauren Worsham), while dressed as the sporty Oxfordian he is, and fleeing the romantic overtures of not one but two elderly gentlemen when he’s trussed up in a corset and tripping over flowing skirts.
The widow’s suitors, attracted by a rumor of riches, are Amy’s uncle, Stephen Spettigue (Dakin Matthews), who is also the guardian of Jack’s paramour, Kitty Verdun (Jill Paice), and Jack’s father, Sir Francis Chesney (Mr. McGillin). Happily for the increasingly exhausted Charley, Sir Francis is distracted from the chase by the arrival of a love of his youth, now apparently going by the name of Mrs. Beverly Smythe (Ms. Luker).
Mr. McGillin, a musical-theater leading man maybe best known for his long run in the title role of “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the lovely Ms. Luker, seemingly ageless both in person and voice, perform an utterly transporting duet, “Lovelier Than Ever,” an operetta-style paean to springtime and young love that’s perhaps the evening’s musical highlight. (To have another chance to hear Ms. Luker’s bell-bright soprano, perhaps the loveliest of her generation, is reason enough to see the show.)
But there are few lulls in this briskly paced evening, aside, perhaps, from the first-act finale, the quasi-samba “Pernambuco,” which occasions an extended ballet sequence that palls without the genius of the original choreographer, George Balanchine, on hand to exalt it. (The choreography by Alex Sanchez for the musical-comedy numbers is frisky and appealing, however. )
Ms. Paice and Mr. Arcelus, both excellent singers, share their own love duet, “My Darling, My Darling,” a song that manages to spoof the swoony conventions of operetta but also indulge them. Ms. Worsham delights with her pure, warm tone and her agile comic delivery in her duet with Mr. McClure, a classic Loesser conversation-in-song in which the lovers dream of the coming glories of 20th-century technology. (This number, “Make a Miracle,” made Stephen Sondheim’s list of songs he wished he’d written.) Mr. Matthews gives a ripe comic performance as the grasping Spettigue.
And in the key role of Charley, Mr. McClure scampers to and fro with tireless energy, flouncing in and out of his skirts with comic verve, employing a funny, pinched falsetto when Charley is impersonating his aunt. The most famous song in Loesser’s score — really the only famous one — is “Once in Love With Amy,” credited with saving the musical’s fortunes during an uneasy out-of-town tryout, when Bolger invited the audience to sing along.
As performed (and led) by Mr. McClure, a nimble dancer and terrific singer, it naturally brings the show to a genial, mildly intoxicating climax. Normally I find the invitation to sing along about as appealing as a date with the dental surgeon. On this rare occasion, I found it almost impossible to resist.
Last Update:October, 23rd 2023