Los Angeles Theater Preview: WHERE’S CHARLEY? (Musical Theater West in Long Beach)

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by Tony Frankel on September 19, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

HERE’S CHARLEY

This Sunday, September 21, Musical Theatre West will begin the Reiner Staged Reading Series fifth anniversary season with a one-time only performance of Where’s Charley? (1948), based on Brandon Thomas’s wildly successful Charley’s Aunt (1892), which had an original London run of 1,466 performances. Where’s Charley?, Frank Loesser’s first Broadway score, is one of those rarely produced musicals that, when you see it, will cause serious head-scratching as to why this is so. MTW’s readings are bit like radio theatre—the brightest talent in the land performs with no set and with scripts in hand—but it’s all done with a score performed by an orchestra (musical direction by Corey Hirsch), the complete libretto, and choreography. The stunning array of Broadway babies in the cast—under the direction of Daniel A. Smith—include David Lamoureux, Zachary Ford, Nicci Claspell, Tom Shelton, Robert Yacko, Mary Gordon Murray, Richard Gould, Gabriel Kalomas, Kristen Aron, Emily Dauwalder, Benjamin Gibson, Christopher Kauffmann, Madison Claire Parks, Allison Sheppard, and Jon M. Wailin.

Hirschfeld drawing of Ray Bolger on the original 1948 poster for WHERE'S CHARLEYTo begin with, Loesser’s remarkable emergence on the Great White Way was unexpected; the well-known, firmly established Hollywood lyricist (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Two Sleepy People”) had only recently started writing his own tunes. Despite a critical drubbing, the original production ran 792 performances, longer than concurrent hits Finian’s Rainbow (1947), Brigadoon (1947), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949), and Call Me Madam (1950). For many years, Broadway analysts credited its success to the hit tune “Once in Love with Amy,” winningly performed by Ray Bolger, who won a Tony and later starred in the 1952 Warner Brothers film version, which has never been released on VHS or DVD. In retrospect, however, the score positively enchants. It is playfully contrived, sprightfully tuneful, and marvelously crafted. It also demonstrates the master’s easy command of wit and romance, sophistication, and hijinks.

Lobby card of Ray Bolger in the film WHRE'S CHARLEYAbout the mediocre 1974 Circle in the Square production, starring Raul Julia (who critics called both “an impeccable choice” and “absurdly miscast”), The New York Times’ Walter Kerr wrote: “Revivals are never a waste of time. You always learn something. Certainly I didn’t realize, when I first saw Where’s Charley?, precisely how delicate—how deliberately delicate—Mr. Loesser’s gentlemanly score was. If you listen to the tunes again you’ll realize that Loesser knew what he was doing in the first place and that what he was doing was creating a chamber musical for a mezzotint world, paying a kind of constant compliment to springtime. We just didn’t quite hear it the first time for the simple reason that in those days—about 26 years ago—we expected musicals to come down upon our heads with a cymbal-proud thump. Now, listening with ears that don’t demand thunderclaps by the dozen, we can hear Loesser’s filigreed intentions more clearly.”

Yet Times writer Brooks Atkinson noted in 1948, “[Loesser] has scribbled off a lively score in a number of entertaining styles—Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche for the beginning, a marching song complete with umph-umph out of a French horn, a comic chorale for some female gossips, and standard romances in a pleasantly sentimental vein. Mr. Loesser combines song-writing with composing, which is a Album cover of the film, WHERE'S CHARLEYmost acceptable notion.” And “Make a Miracle,” a classic Loesser conversation-in-song in which two lovers dream of the coming glories of 20th-century technology, made Stephen Sondheim’s list of songs he wished he’d written.

Charley has nonetheless been relegated to musical comedy limbo; the causes include the lack of an original Broadway cast album (due to a recording industry strike) and the indelible personal stamp Ray Bolger put on the material (there is a London cast recording with Norman Wisdom in Bolger’s role). But if this fluffy musical didn’t mark a particularly auspicious artistic debut for first timers Loesser and producers Feuer & Martin, their next attempt—opening just as Charley ended its two-year run—was the perfectly crafted Guys and Dolls (1950).

WHERE'S CHARLEY at Musical Theatre West. POSTERThe story concerns Oxford students Charley and his best pal, Jack. They 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, 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, 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.

Perhaps modern-day producers are wary of the old-style book show and its confectionary plot. As adapted by George Abbot (who directed the original with George Balanchine as choreographer), the rearranged story lost some humor in its translation. But any company with the right vision can find humor aplenty, just as New York’s Encores! did in 2011. Musical Theatre West fashioned so much humor and charm from A.J. Carothers’ troubled libretto of Busker Alley last month that I trust a delightful performance of Charley is in store.

Can’t wait to sing-a-long to “Once in Love with Amy?” Here’s a clip from the movie version of Where’s Charley? with Ray Bolger.

Where’s Charley?
Musical Theatre West
produced by Michael Betts and David Lamoureux
University Theatre
California State University, Long Beach
Sunday, September 21, 2014 at 7:00
for tickets, call (562) 856-1999 x 4 or visit www.musical.org

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