Based on Charley's Aunt, a farce by Brandon Thomas, Where's Charley? has a book by George Abbott and a score by Frank Loesser. The musical centers on the exploits of the title character, an Oxford lad who gets himself up in drag and passes himself off as his aunt for reasons that are much too complicated to be detailed here. The star of the original Broadway production was Ray Bolger -- who, though wildly miscast as Charley in terms of age and type, apparently created a sensation in the role. (People still talk about the love-fest created at every performance when he led the audience in singing the show's most famous song, "Once in Love With Amy.") Bolger also starred in a film version of the musical, and one can assume that his virtual ownership of the role worked against the show being revived with other stars, at least for a few decades.
There are two other reasons for the scarcity of Charley, just as significant as the Bolger problem. First, the musical was one of the very few Broadway hits of its time that did not yield an original cast album. (There's a London cast recording with Norman Wisdom in the title role, but its release in America has been spotty and I believe it's currently out of print.) On top of that, the movie version has never been available for purchase on home video, and it so rarely turns up on TV or in revival houses that many people don't even know it exists. With no Broadway cast album and no movie in circulation, new generations of producers, directors, and performers have had a hard time getting to know this delightful show -- and if you've never seen or heard something, why would you think of staging it?
Even if the Goodspeed production was less enjoyable than it is, the company and Tony Walton would deserve our thanks if only because they're giving many people a chance to check out Where's Charley? for the first time. That said, I must question Walton's decisions to incorporate some jokes and dialogue from Charley's Aunt, to interpolate a few Loesser songs from other sources, to cut one song ("The Gossips"), and to rearrange the order of some of the musical numbers. ("Pernambuco," which used to be the Act I finale, is now slotted in Act II in place of "The Gossips"; and the title song, which used to open Act II, is now split up and sung both at the end of the first act and the beginning of the second.) While none of these changes are terribly harmful, neither do they seem necessary. Since the show has been revived so rarely, why not present it as is and see how contemporary audiences would receive it? (I was fortunate enough to see the 1974 Circle-in-the-Square production that starred Raul Julia and, if memory serves, the musical was performed as written.)
If Walton's futzing with the score and the script is questionable, his direction and design of this production are praiseworthy. Yes, there are a few moments where the comedy seems a bit blunt; at least twice, Walton falls back on that ancient, unfunny bit where one or more of the characters break up in forced laughter, then stop abruptly in embarrassment when they realize there's nothing funny about the situation. But, for the most part, the director has guided the cast with the right touch, allowing the romantic songs and scenes to play as well as the comic business. And the production design is superb -- no shocker, given that Walton is a multiple award winner for his work in this field over the past 40-odd years. (Kelly Hanson and Martha Bromemmeier respectively serve as his co-set and co-costume designer here.)
The small orchestra, working under musical director Michael O'Flaherty and playing skillfully reduced orchestrations by Larry Moore, sounds fine except when the synthesizer clearly comes through as a synthesizer. Purists may lament the fact that the show's overture has been cut -- though, under the circumstances, it probably wouldn't have sounded terrific anyway. (A few bars of it are heard at the beginning of the entr'acte, for whatever that's worth.)
The cast is excellent overall. Nili Bassman is adorable as Charley's intended, Amy Spettigue; she's got the character down pat, she sings well, and she bears a striking resemblance to the young Jane Seymour. (This is a good thing!) As Charley's school chum, Jack Chesney, and his intended, Kitty Verdun, Greg Mills and Kristin Huxhold display gorgeous voices in "My Darling, My Darling" and "The Red Rose Cotillion." Ron Lee Savin, sounding for all the world like Eugene Pallette, is amusing as the money-chasing Mr. Spettigue; Paul Carlin and Mary Illes are perfectly cast as Sir Francis Chesney and Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez (Charley's actual aunt); and Drew Eshelman is wonderfully droll in the few lines allotted to him as Brassett, the butler. Some of the actors' British accents are less than consistent but that's a minor quibble in this case, given that this musical is a far from realistic portrait of life at Oxford in the 1890s.
Of course, Where's Charley? soars or flounders on the strengths of the fellow cast in the title role -- and that brings us to the really joyous news of this production. Noah Racey is brilliantly funny and charming in the part, holding the audience in the palm of his hand with his expert dancing and just-as-expert physical comedy; among his most captivating moments are a dance on top of a piano, a hilarious tea service sequence, and a priceless bit involving a cigar. Racey did a bang-up job as the lead in Broadway's Never Gonna Dance last year but was somewhat hampered by the fact that the show itself was problematic. Here, performing far more solid material, he hits the bulls-eye every time he sets foot on stage (or frantically runs on and off in a dress). Racey wins over the crowd long before he gets to "Once in Love With Amy." At the curtain call, one has the feeling that every single theatergoer would take him home with him/her if he/she could.
With a few tweaks and some careful upsizing, this production could conceivably be a hit on Broadway -- and Noah Racey would have a Tony nomination sewed up. In the meantime: It's a rare and wonderful thing to witness an entire audience falling in love with a performer whom they've probably never heard of before. Goodspeed's Where's Charley? is worth a trip to East Haddam if only for that experience.