This first Broadway work from Frank Loesser -- the man who would go on to write such hits as Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying -- is often gorgeous if imperfect:, and George Abbott's book, based on Brandon Thomas' farce Charley's Aunt, is curiously disjointed, especially in the second act . So one can see why Where's Charley? is hardly a candidate for a major revival -- and these sorts of shows are Encores! true mission..
The frothy musical, set in Oxford, England in 1892, revolves around the complications that arise just because Charley (the seemingly rubber-jointed and dashingly goofy Rob McClure) and Jack (played with gentle earnestness by Sebastian Arcelus) want to have lunch with their respective sweethearts Amy (imbued with girlishness on the cusp of womanhood by Lauren Worsham) and Kitty (Jill Paice).
Since custom of the times means that the guys simply can't ask the girls over for the meal, they need a chaperone. And as the show begins, the men are waiting for not only the girls, but also Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez, Charley's fabulously wealthy and mysterious aunt, who has cabled announcing her arrival from Brazil. When she does not appear, Charley hops into a costume that's on hand for a school show and pretends to be the woman.
His ruse works -- too well -- as Stephen Spettigue (a comically haughty Dakin Matthews), Amy's uncle and Kitty's guardian, takes a fancy to Charley's Donna Lucia, and ultimately, the only way Spettigue will agree to the girls' marriages to their beaux is if she agrees to marry him. Similarly, Jack's father, Sir Francis (Howard McGillin), thinks that he can shore up his dwindling fortunes by wedding the woman.
McClure darting in and out of the ludicrously extravagant striped gown (from costume designer Ann Hould Ward) that Charley dons for his impersonation makes for some of the merriest moments in the show, as does Matthews' swift and humorously embellished chases after him/her.
Doyle takes an intelligent dual approach to the work: there's a staid stylization for the book's reserved and romantic scenes which makes these farcical moments -- played broadly -- all the funnier. Choreographer Alex Sanchez's dances often display a similar dichotomy, communicating not only the good breeding of the principals and their friends, but also their youthful impulsiveness. Sanchez's finest work, though, is an extended dream ballet sequence depicting the sordid arrival in Brazil that Charley imagines for his aunt.
The pinnacle of McClure's thoroughly winning turn is his delivery of the one big hit from the show, "Once in Love With Amy." Elsewhere, Worsham brings sweet panache to "The Woman in His Room" (a jealously fueled comic aria), while McGillin and Rebecca Luker --- who plays Charley's actual aunt (and an old flame of Sir Francis) -- sends the lush romantic ballad "Lovelier Than Ever" soaring with power and gentle passion.
Scenic designer John Lee Beatty surrounds the action with crisply cropped hedges that serve surprisingly well for both the show's interior and exterior scenes and lighting designer Paul Miller dapples the stage gorgeously with pastels, giving the production a warm, decidedly comforting, spring-like feel.
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