Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT
Goodspeed Musicals is now offering up a fresh, light-hearted summer musical-fresh, even though "Where's Charley?" is over 100 years old. (That is, the original farce was an 1892 London hit, and the musical version opened on Broadway in 1948, with the incomparable music and lyrics of Frank Loesser.)
Farce does not lend its genre easily to a musical format. All the wild racing about, slamming of doors, unexpected appearances (typical farcical elements) grind to a halt when the action stops for a song.
Yet this musical version of the original "Charley's Aunt," has its own charm. And in this current adaptation, under Tony Walton's flawless direction, the venerable piece comes to life once more. With lavish costumes and stage sets, enduring tunes like "Once in Love With Amy" and "My Darling, My Darling," and impeccable performances, "Where's Charley?" is newly-minted.
The story is set in 19th century England, where two Oxford chaps, Charley and Jack, attempt to court their very proper ladies. They await Charley's aunt, who must serve as chaperone. But as Charley's aunt does not appear on schedule, Charley himself is forced into the role. Thus the stage is set for lightning costume changes, mistaken identities and wild disguises, the very trademarks of physical farce.
Centerpiece to this show is the excellent Noah Racey in the title role. Racey is as much a flawless circus performer as he is a dancer--twirling or tossing his cane into the air or slithering on stage while never missing a beat. It is tempting to draw comparisons to the original Charley of the musical-Ray Bolger-but Racey makes the role his own. Playing the eager young Charley Wykeham-and his own aunt--Racey is capable of all the physical possibilities of farce and makes the most of comic shtick. (He disappoints only in his rendition of the famous soft-shoe number, "Once in Love With Amy." He is certainly capable of taking this solo over the top, but seems to put restraints on the performance.)
Supporting Racey (and in fine singing form) are Greg Mills as Charley's friend, Nili Bassman and Kristin Huxhold as their lady loves. Mary Illes adds considerable elegance when she appears as the real aunt. And both Ron Lee Savin and Paul Carlin round out the fine cast, playing the two elderly men who hope to marry Charley's rich "aunt." In particular, the scenes with Savin, a little round man, wildly in pursuit of the "aunt" and puffing his way across scene, are delicious.
The company's weakest moments are the full production numbers, which prove to be bland-except for the final "Red Rose Cotillion." And though Walton has added several Loesser songs not in the original musical, they add little to beef up the show. It is the old-timers which stand up best.
But such concerns are minor. On the whole, this production works beautifully. The Walton touch is everywhere, since he is the designer as well as director (with Kelly Hanson as co-set designer and Martha Bromelmeier as co-costume designer). Sets and costumes are captivating, well enhanced by Richard Pilbrow's soft romantic lighting. It is the Victorian world as it probably never existed, but as seen through Walton's wondrous imagination.
-- Irene Backalenick
Aug. 11, 2004