Ray Bolger
Ray Bolger
As my esteemed colleague Michael Portantiere wrote in his review of Where's Charley? at Goodspeed, this is one of the most elusive musicals -- especially considering that it ran nearly two years on Broadway (1948-1950) and was headed by a genuine star, Ray Bolger. Frank Loesser's score was not preserved on an original cast album (damn that musicians' strike!) nor in recordings of revivals in 1951 (a quick tour stop at the Broadway Theatre), 1966 (City Center), or 1974 (Circle in the Square). A British cast album was released in 1958, then in 1971 in America on Monmouth-Evergreen (the strangest name for a label until Varèse Sarabande came along), and then on an Angel CD in 1993, but all are hard to find. Too bad, for it's a spirited recording, even if Norman Wisdom's "Once in Love with Amy" is a mere throwaway (at 2:28). Compare it to the nifty single that Bolger made (4:17), complete with the invitation for the audience to sing along that became the number's hallmark.

A movie version of the musical was released in 1952 but it's never been issued in any video format. I have it on good authority that Jo (Mrs. Frank) Loesser neither likes it nor wants anyone to see it; so I'm grateful to my buddy Marie Welch, a San Diegan who taped it for me when it was shown on KFMB-TV. In case you don't have a friend this thoughtful, let me tell you what you've been missing.

The credits tell us that the musical was "originally produced by Ernest Martin and Cy Feuer" -- the only time I've ever seen Feuer and Martin billed in that order. Then three dozen men in graduation robes and women in period (1892) dresses sing "Where's Charley?" (With so many wanting to know his whereabouts, it seems that Charley is quite a Big Man on Campus at Oxford University.) After this enormous Michael Kidd production number, Bolger enters. On stage in 1948, he was probably able to pass as an undergrad -- from the second balcony of the St. James, anyway -- but on film four years later, he looks as if he's a student who's been left back a lot.

Know the plot? Charley and Jack are expecting their respective beloveds, Amy (original caster Allyn Ann McLerie) and Kitty, as well as Charley's aunt, Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez; in these Victorian days, a chaperone had to be present when young lovers met. Stephen Spettigue (original caster Horace Cooper), who's Amy's uncle and Kitty's guardian, insists on this. Why can't he be the chaperone? Because then there'd be no show. You see, Donna Lucia doesn't show up, so Charley -- who has been rehearsing a drag role for a university show -- pretends to be she. This gives him little time with Amy but enough time to duet with her in "Make a Miracle," one of the musical theater's most delightful songs (although Bolger is often flat in his movie rendition). Charley and Amy ruminate about the day when there'll be electric lights, fountain pens, horseless carriages -- even horseless carriages that fly -- and stereopticons that move (read: movies). All of these came to pass, of course, but Loesser also wrote that "Someday, someone rather bright will cure the common cold" -- which still hasn't happened.

Much of the score is intact in the film. Missing is the soupy ballad "Lovelier Than Ever," which Jack's dad sings with the real Donna Lucia when she finally shows up (they had a thing when they were young). Also gone is the clever "Woman in His Room" and "The Gossips," which includes a mega-mix of the show's big hits. "Pernambuco," a song celebrating the town in which Charley's Donna Lucia claims to reside, is only heard as dance music when (s)he reminisces that she once "looked much like Amy here." This allows McLerie to dance something that, if not a Dream Ballet, is at least a Concocted Memory Ballet.

And how's Bolger? Well, there's nothing subtle about his Donna Lucia. After two deep-voiced false starts, which everyone conveniently overlooks, Bolger puts on his feminine voice. He gives men a come-hither look that would send any man away. At one point, he says "It's bully," and everyone looks shocked. Contemporary audiences may wonder why until he corrects himself by saying "It's pleasant," and then they'll realize that "bully" was considered too forceful a word for a woman to use in those days.

I recently wrote about the theatrical devices that I hate, and two of them are in this film: 1) No one can tell that a person is lying when he hesitates and stutters before he answers; 2) No one can see through an all-too-obvious disguise, making me lose respect for the characters. The supposed fun of the show is watching Charley's native masculinity come through as he swings from a tree branch, adjusts the waistband of his underwear, tips over backwards as his dress flies upwards and shows all. He has a loping gait when he walks, and when he sprints lickety-split to avoid suitors, nobody ever says, "He runs like a man -- oh, he IS a man!" We can concede that there would be a family resemblance between Charley and Dona Lucia, but no one notices that they're exactly the same height. In fact, no one catches on to anything until nearly two hours have passed.

Noah Racey and Nili Bassmanin Goodspeed's Where's Charley?(Photo © Diane Sobolewski)
Noah Racey and Nili Bassman
in Goodspeed's Where's Charley?
(Photo © Diane Sobolewski)
I'd like to see a Where's Charley? where a masculine performer has a little trouble at first convincing the characters, the audience, and himself that he's a woman but eventually gets it. The best shows are the ones where characters grow, so to watch Charley slowly but surely succeed would be very funny. Alas, though Goodspeed's Noah Racey is excellent at doing what director Tony Walton wants him to do, he's never a convincing woman; in fact, he makes no attempt to adopt a feminine voice. This Where's Charley? panders to an audience that gets pleasure out of being smarter than the characters on-stage.

Mrs. Loesser, please let people see the film version despite its flaws, for Bolger's dancing must be seen. Sure, we all know him in The Wizard of Oz, but he's 13 years older here and he still hasn't remotely lost it. You'd swear that Charles Goodrich, who vulcanized rubber, personally infused some of that substance into Bolger's legs. There's a point where he's walking on his knees and looks as if he'll lift his left leg to get up but, at the last split second, effortlessly changes to his right. And when he's up and spins around -- well, just as Giotto was said to have been able to draw a perfect circle freehand, Bolger can return to precisely where he started. The centerpiece of the movie, of course, is the lovely six minutes and 21 seconds' worth of "Once in Love with Amy," after which Bolger dances down a long country lane and through a meadow with the same joy that he showed when cavorting down The Yellow Brick Road.

The movie ends with theater-style curtain calls. I blinked when I saw Bolger walk out with McLerie, as I thought he'd surely get a solo bow. Well, he does, for he then comes out dressed as "Charley's Aunt." I hope that, someday soon, you get to see Ray Bolger take both of his bows.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@theatermania.com]