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Where's Charley?

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jill Paice, Rob McClure, and Lauren Worsham.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Musical-theatre legend has it that the original 1948 production of Where's Charley?, George Abbott and Frank Loesser's Broadway adaptation of Brandon Thomas's 1892 farce Charley's Aunt, became a loved and lasting hit only when star Ray Bolger encouraged audiences to sing along with him on "Once in Love With Amy." Given how much fun that second-act number, a charming soft-shoe, is to both hear and sing, it's utterly believable that it's exactly what it took to bring a middling and muddled musical to life. At City Center through Sunday night, the new Encores! production of Where's Charley? is repeating a similar (if smaller) feat.

Make no mistake: Rob McClure is no Bolger. He may have a more solid voice, but he lacks the limbs that can become linguini on command, the effortless likeability, the comfortable guy-next-door quirkiness that identifies someone as a star rather than a hoofer. But put "Once in Love With Amy" in the hands, mouth, and spirit of someone who can convince you—even a little—of the effervescence of young love, and you've got a lot. Get an audience of hundreds, if not thousands, to croon along with Loesser's bouncy tune and nimble lyric, and you have a heck of a lot more.

So even though John Doyle, who's directed and provided the concert adaptation of Abbott's script (which incorporates hefty chunks of Thomas's dialogue), uses a number of methods to keep you from taking things too seriously, it's difficult not to love the Encores! production for those few minutes. (And, it should be stated, again at the curtain call.) The rest of the time, that same love does not come easy.

Doyle's tricks—which include instructing his actors to almost entirely disconnect from their roles emotionally, engaging Alex Sanchez to provide Brechtian-sock-hop choreography, and utterly disregarding such staging conventions as having lovers sing a duet with fewer than 20 feet between them, or having characters exit together via the same part of the stage—certainly do not aid matters. But the evening is ultimately hampered by the score which, despite outstanding orchestrations from Ted Royal, Hans Spialek, and Philip J. Lang, and an energetic performance from conductor Rob Berman and the Encores! orchestra, is not remotely in Loesser's top tier.

It would be a thrill to say otherwise, as this is one of the major "lost" musicals from the 1948-1949 season that could not preserve its songs in a cast recording because of a labor dispute. (The other, more frequently cited victim was Kurt Weill and Alan Jay Lerner's Love Life.) But Loesser was still finding himself as a composer of crisp consistency across a full dramatic evening, and his unsteadiness is obvious. He seems to have been shooting for something between proto-Florodora operetta and 20s college comedies, but never quite figured out how to mesh the styles.

Rebecca Luker and Howard McGillin.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

As a result, you get the marginally soaring ballad "Lovelier Than Ever" for the older romantic leads; two wishy-washy comic soliloquies, one for a supporting actor ("Serenade With Asides"), one for the leading lady ("The Woman in His Room"); the blandly experimental "Make a Miracle," comparing great love to the great inventions of the future; and not only the requisite alma mater ("The Years Before Us") and marching song ("The New Ashmolean Marching Society and Students' Conservatory Band"), but even a Latin tribute in "Pernambuco." (Set in Brazil. "Where the nuts come from." Don't ask.) Much of the rest, including the title song, the faux-frantic "Better Get Out of Here," and the costume-drama chorus "At the Red Rose Cotillion," are forgotten as soon as they're heard.

Where's Charley?, then, becomes most fascinating for giving us an early glimpse of the Loesser who would go on to write the richly integrated and cohesive scores for Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, plus the well-intentioned but less sure Greenwillow. Seen as its own piece, however, it's essentially a wash. And because Encores! is all about the score, a weak one means a weak (or at least a weak-ish) evening, a problem not aided by a book that's been cut so much by both Abbott and Doyle that the story is difficult to discern except in its broadest slashes.

To wit: Charley Wykeham (McClure) masquerades as his own aunt, Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez, in order to secure the partnership of his roommate Jack Chesney (Sebastian Arcelus) with his beloved Kitty Verdun (Jill Paice). When Charley falls in love Amy Spettigue (Lauren Worsham) while dressed as his aunt, and when both Amy's uncle (Dakin Matthews) and Jack's father fall in love with Charley-as-Lucia, there are all the expected problems. Which, naturally, are only compounded when Donna Lucia herself arrives.

This requires committed comedians and personalities on the order of those currently performing The Importance of Being Earnest on Broadway, and it doesn't get them. In addition to McClure, who is little more than breathless from start to finish (fair, given how much time he spends literally running around in the ridiculous period dress assigned him by costume consultant Ann Hould-Ward), Arcelus, Paice, and Worsham are all attractive of face and voice, but largely lifeless in their roles. Matthews is fine as the randy old man of the group, but his delivery would be funnier were it tinged with more depth.

The most successful performances come from Howard McGillin and Rebecca Luker. As Jack's father and Charley's (real) aunt, they bring their superb legit voices to only "Lovelier Than Ever," but through their unique presences and brightly burnished senses of comedy, they lend the production the class, gravitas, and respectability it needs to delight in the key moments you're not able to sing along. Some wags might consider their portrayals outdated, but no element that truly works ever goes out of fashion. That's good news for McGillin, Luker, and the audiences that get to see them here. But nothing can stop Where's Charley? itself from seeming distinctly old-hat.

Where's Charley?
New York City Center's Mainstage, West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.
Friday 3/18 at 8 pm, Saturday 3/19 at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sunday 3/20 at 6:30 pm.
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