Where's Charley?

Encores! at NY City Center - March 2011
Reviewed by John Kenrick

Note to the creators of Spiderman, Turn Off the Dark: instead of making your actors fly, you would get much farther by getting your audience to levitate. To make actors fly, one needs some costly (and apparently rather dangerous) wiring and hydraulic equipment.  To get an audience to levitate, you need something far less hazardous, a musical comedy -- you know, like Where's Charley?

Of course, the people who created Where's Charley are long gone, but the amazing thing is that 60-plus years after premiering, this delightful show (presented with exquisite and stylish simplicity by Encores at City Center) can still rock audiences with wit and melody. Sadly, you boneheads at Spiderman seem determined not to slip any of these qualities into your theme park extravaganza -- oops, I mean "groundbreaking musical." That is why the only ground that you seem really capable of breaking is the cultural grave the memory of your mega-bomb will eventually be buried in.

The folks behind Where's Charley didn't waste time with pretentious claims to inventing something new; they just tried to entertain, filling a little over two hours with tuneful songs and a handsomely paced comic plot. That plot had been around ever since Brandon Thomas wrote the British farce Charley's Aunt in 1892 -- two Oxford men want to entertain their girls, and since a chaperone is required, one of the boys masquerades as his own aunt. His real aunt unexpectedly arrives, unleashing a series of harmless but reliably hilarious events. Hollywood songwriter Frank Loesser made his Broadway debut creating the score, which ranges from giddy marches and collegiate chorales to a mock soliloquy and even a vaudevillian soft shoe routine. The legendary George Abbott directed and crafted the libretto, keeping the main flow of the original play and using the songs to amplify the fun without ever slowing it down.

Presenting this kind of classic farce is a bit like preparing a classic soufflé; in order for the fluff to rise, all the ingredients must be in precise proportion and handled with reasonable care. In this Encores staging, director John Doyle has shown extraordinary sense, resulting in a concert that gave as much satisfaction as any fully staged production. The pacing varied perfectly from scene to scene, picking up almost imperceptibly as it built to the breathless climax. Part of the credit for this must go to musical director Rob Berman, who led the orchestra with his usual brilliance.

Lauren Worsham and Jill Paice were just right as the young ladies in question, and Sebastian Arcelus provided a perfect assist as Charley's roomate. Arcelus and Paice made the most of "My Darling, My Darling," and Worsham pleased the audience handling the repetitive female soliloquy "The Woman in His Room." Broadway veterans Rebecca Luker and Howard McGillin were pure delights as Charley's actual aunt and the widower she loved in days gone by -- and seems destined to love again.When Luker and McGillin (both of whom obviously have fascinating portraits in their attics) joined their glorious voices in the rapturous and aptly titled Loesser duet "Lovelier Than Ever," they provided just the sort "moment of revelation" that Encores audiences crave.Few of us knew this rarely heard song, but none of us will ever forget this sumptuous performance of it.

Anyone who thinks that the sight of a man in drag has lost its comic power would be corrected forever by seeing Rob McClure zooming about the stage of City Center, giggling in falsetto and panting with exasperation as he avoided the romantic attentions of male suitors who believe him to be his widowed millionaire aunt.  McClure handled the role with such delicious charm and energy that by the time he broke into the aforementioned soft shoe number "Once in Love With Amy" (made famous by the role's beloved originator, Ray Bolger), the audience not only joined in singing the catchy refrain -- it was happily flying with McClure on the wings of romantic glee.

Gee, all that levitation, and not a rope, pulley . . . or spiderweb . . . in sight.

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