Where’s Charley?

by Nancy Salz, May, 2011

Rob McClure and Ensemble in "Where's Charley?" New York City Center. Photo Joan Marcus.

Rob McClure and Ensemble in “Where’s Charley?” New York City Center. Photo Joan Marcus.

Based on Brandon Thomas’ Charley’s Aunt
Book by George Abbott
Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser

Cast:
Sebastian Arcelus, Jeff Brooks, Rebecca Luker,
Dakin Matthews, Rob McClure, Howard McGillin,
Jill Paice, Lauren Worsham

Directed by John Doyle

Sometimes it can be the simplest gesture that tips off an audience they’re in for a theatrical treat. In the recent City Center Encores! revival of Where’s Charley? the clue took place in the opening quartet in which two young couples alternated in duet. When they weren’t singing, the performers pulled their chests up high, linked arms and bounced subtly and elegantly on their toes in time to the music. Here was imaginative choreography where an understated move (think Fosse’s hat-tilt) said everything! Here were singers who could dance! With just one exception, the entire performance lived up to its early promise of stylish fun.

The March 16-20, 2011, production of Where’s Charley? was yet another reason why musical theatre lovers flock to the Encores! series, which just completed its 18th season at the City Center of Music and Drama in New York. Its three revivals of American musicals each season are frequently the toughest ticket in town. The musicals, conducted by Rob Berman, are performed with an on-stage, 27-piece orchestra — far larger than appears with most Broadway shows. The revivals are also fully costumed and choreographed. Only the limited scenery and black script binders held by the performers remind the audience that they are seeing a less-than-full production that had only two-weeks of rehearsal time.

Where’s Charley?, based on Brandon Thomas’s 1892 British farce Charley’s Aunt, opened on Broadway in October of 1948. It was composer Frank Loesser’s (Guys and Dolls, Most Happy Fella) first musical. During a post-performance discussion, the Saturday matinee audience at City Center learned from Jo Sullivan Loesser, the composer’s widow and his Most Happy Fella leading lady, that the composer was originally supposed to write only the lyrics. Harold Arlen, who was to write the music, backed out when his house burned down. George Abbott was the show’s original director and author of the book. George Balanchine was the choreographer. And Ray Bolger (The Wizard of Oz’s loose-limbed scarecrow) starred as Charley,

While the Where’s Charley? book eliminated a few characters from the original play, the essence of the farcical plot and much of the script remains. Two Oxford students, Charley Wykeham (Rob McClure) and Jack Chesney (Sebastian Arcelus) are in love with two young ladies, Amy Spettigue (Lauren Worsham) and Kitty Verdun (Jill Paice) and want to invite the ladies to their university suite so that they can profess their love and propose. As it is 1892, it would be unseemly for the ladies to visit their suitors without a chaperone. When Charley learns that Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez, his wealthy, widowed aunt from Brazil (“where the nuts come from,” an oft-repeated line from the original and the musical that gets a laugh every time), is arriving that very day, he and Jack issue an invitation. The young ladies’ guardian, Stephen Spettigue (Dakin Mathews), is also conveniently visiting London. Problems ensue when a note from Donna Lucia is delivered announcing a delay in her arrival, just as Amy and Kitty show up. To save the day Charley dons a woman’s costume he has on hand for a play in which he is about to appear and pretends to be his aunt. To complicate matters further, both Spettigue, who returns early from London, and Jack’s father, Sir Francis Chesney (Howard McGillin), become attracted to this fake aunt — and her money. The final complication occurs when the real Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez (Rebecca Lukor) turns up after all.

Rob McClure and Howard McGillan in "Where's Charley?" New York City Center. Photo Joan Marcus.

Rob McClure and Howard McGillan in “Where’s Charley?” New York City Center. Photo Joan Marcus.

Charley changes from his Oxford student suit into his aunt wig and costume (a long pink, blue and yellow striped dress with a bustle and an extended train that floats behind him as he dashes across the stage to escape a pursuing Spettigue) close to a dozen times during this British romp.

Loesser’s score is beguiling. In his book Finishing The Hat Stephen Sondheim confesses to Loesser’s being the first composer he tried to imitate and called him “a master of conversational lyrics.” The stand-out songs are “My Darling, My Darling” (“I’ve wanted to call you my darling for many and many a day”), which rose to number one as a 1948 popular hit in America; “Make a Miracle”; and the favorite audience sing-along, “Once in Love with Amy.” One can see the seeds of Loesser’s future “Adelaide’s Lament” fromGuys and Dolls in the soliloquy “The Woman in His Room,” sung with effective, comic sincerity by Lauren Worsham. The only jarring musical misfit is an old-fashioned McDonald-Eddy type song called “Lovelier Than Ever.” It has a lovely melodic line, but even when sung by the beautiful voices of Howard McGillan and Rebecca Lukor, the song came across as out-of-place and cringingly corny. The song would have been more at home in a 1920’s operetta than a musical written after the ground-breaking Oklahoma and just one year before South Pacific premiered. This song may be one reason why the show was deemed a bit old-fashioned in its day.

The show hasn’t had a major New York City revival since 1953. Interestingly, according to Jack Viertel, the Artistic Director of the Encores! series, Richard Rodgers thought Where’s Charley? so promising that he invested in it, providing four percent of the $200,000 cost of mounting the original production.

Alex Sanchez in his Encores! debut as a choreographer brought exceptional originality to the dances and the major dance sequence, “Pernambuco.” The dancing was energetic with fearless lifts and throws, yet totally charming when, for example, the male dancers turned their backs to the audience and alternately lifted their right and left knees to the side in a backwards chorus line. Sanchez appeared as a dancer in ten Broadway shows, and that experience undoubtedly informed his choreography. He should have a major choreographic career ahead of him.

Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes — bright pinks, blues and lavenders, with each leading man’s shirt matching the pink or blue of his leading lady’s dress — were elegant.

However, the major credits for this enchanting revival belong to the 28-year-old Rob McClure, who starred as Charley, and John Doyle, the revival’s Director.

McClure is as graceful a dancer as Ray Bolger and has the comic talent of Christopher Fitzgerald, who played Charley in the Williamstown Theatre Festival production in 2002. He possesses a warm, baritone singing voice as well. But it is his magnetic energy, and his sheer joy of being on the stage, that, together with his talent, make his performance irresistible and such silly fun. When he wasn’t on the stage, the show wasn’t quite as compelling,

The comic timing of the many entrances and exits and the fast pacing of the show must be credited to Scotsman John Doyle, the Director. Doyle, who won Tonys for his direction of the Sweeney Todd andCompany revivals on Broadway, is also an opera director. He directed Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera and Lucia di Lammermoor at the Houston Grand Opera. Doyle had much experience in England directing British farce and also directed Charley’s Aunt there a number of times. He brought this unique experience to the revival, and it shows. He explained in the post-performance discussion, he had to drop some of the physical bits, such as a tea scene, because the actors were holding their script folders. He chose to do this semi-staged production of Where’s Charley? because, as he said on the City Center Web blog, he wanted to do “something that lets people see I’ve got a sense of humor.” On the same blog the performers praised him for reminding them to keep their sense of delicacy and gentility, providing them with such specific direction and for commanding authority without ever raising his voice.

Because of a musician’s recording strike during the 1948-1949 season, no cast recording was ever made of the original production of Where’s Charley? A CD and an MP3 download of the 1958 London production are available but do not include the full score. One can only hope that somehow this splendid Encores! revival will be preserved in a recording in the near future. This joyous production deserves to live on.