Friday, May 15, 2015

"Where's Charley?"

Where’s Charley?
Frank Loesser (Music & Lyrics); George Abbott (Book)
42nd Street Moon
Eureka Theatre, San Francisco

There is something about a man cross-dressing as a woman that has left audiences howling in laughter through the ages, from Falstaff to Daphne & Josephine to Mrs. Doubtfire and Tootsie.  Surely one of the all-time favorites of audiences the world over is the college graduate Charley Wykeham dressed as his visiting, matronly aunt from Brazil in Brandon Thomas’ 1892 play, Charley’s Aunt, still in revival almost continuously on some London stage and on thousands of other high school-to-professional stages worldwide.  Among the many adaptations in dozens of languages is the 1947 Broadway hit musical Where’s Charley?, now being revived in a hilarious, very well sung and -danced production by 42nd Street Moon.  As was attested the evening I attended at the intimate Eureka Theatre, even in San Francisco where drag- and cross-dressing are a daily scene on any sidewalk and many clubs, seeing Charley costumed, cavort, and snort as his old, rich aunt is enough to send the audience into convulsive spasms.

The storyline is simple, outlandish, and perfect for an evening of fun and frolic.  Charley and his college buddy Jack are in love with Amy and Kitty and want to spend the afternoon with them.  But in 1890s England, that is impossible without a proper chaperon, especially when there is a persistently present uncle and guardian of the two young ladies who is determined that the blossoming love will wither and die (so that he can then keep control of his niece’s willed fortune).   A millionaire aunt is to arrive from Brazil for Charley’s graduation who can well serve as the overseer of the afternoon’s wooing; but her arrival is delayed, the girls arrive for tea, and Jack convinces a rather reluctant Charley to dress as his aunt.  As Charley bounces back and forth between himself and the ‘aunt;’ as the obnoxious uncle and Jack’s visiting father both begin to pursue the love of the wigged, rather homely ‘aunt;’ and as the real aunt arrives in the midst of the charades and shenanigans, slapstick and hilarity ensue.

As Charley, Keith Pinto at first fights being forced to dress and act the part of his aunt, pawing at his stuffed dress, flinging on and off his wigged curls, and generally stomping about the stage in very unladylike manner.  But when the young women adore him as Charley’s matronly aunt (and are willing to kiss his cheeks and put their heads on his shoulders) and when the uncle/guardian Mr. Spettigue hungrily chases him as the rich aunt with ever-growing bouquets of flowers, he takes on with vigor all the roles of a consoling, flirting, and eccentric matron with increasing ease and hilarity.  Mr. Pinto also sings the musical’s signature “Once in Love with Amy” in a show-stopping, heart-throb manner, complete with an extended soft-shoe routine that gets the night’s loudest and longest ovation.

Charley’s love focus, Amy Spettigue (Abby Sammons) also takes full command of the stage in a show-of-force “The Woman in His Room.”  In beautiful voice, she first pines how she really can trust her sweet Charley (who keeps disappearing every time his ‘aunt’ appears) but then switches into a manic and hilarious rant and rave as she suspects his repeated absences are due to a ‘rendezvous’ with some beautiful rival.  This back-and-forth “I love him,” “I detest him” number is a highlight and a ‘best featured actress’ kind of number for Ms. Sammons.

While much of the music of Loesser’s first Broadway outing is not that memorable, its ballads and love duets are ably performed by this well-voiced cast.  Charley and Amy come together for a touching “Make Me a Miracle.”  James Bock and Jennifer Mitchell both dance and sing beautifully “My Darling, My Darling.”  And the ever-wonderful and talented Stephanie Rhoads (a 42nd Street perennial favorite) teams with John-Elliott Kirk as the real Aunt Dona Lucia D’Alvadorez reunites with an old flame, Sir Francis Chesney in one of the evening’s loveliest numbers, “Lovelier than Ever.” 

A special shout-out also goes to Noelani Neal, Katherine Leyva, and Maria Mikheyenko who trio together in “The Gossips” as three ingénues who take time from dressing for the evening’s ball to spill the beans to each other on what they know (or think they know) about the goings-on around them.  In exaggerated movements and antics, each gets a turn to sing forth the secrets she has acquired (of course, only after saying she cannot in any way share them).

The one downside of the evening’s overall musical prowess is the inability of the high sopranos to blend in with the rest of the talented chorus members.  Time and again, one or two voices shrill a bit too much above everyone else, causing otherwise finely performed numbers to have an unwelcomed edge to them.  But overall, the big numbers are fun and well choreographed (Nancy Dobbs Owen).  And while the scenery and set seems even more sparse than has been seen of late on 42nd stages, the costuming is once again superb and puts us automatically into late 19th-Century, upper-society England thanks to Rebecca Valentino’s designs.

All in all, this is not a show that I left humming many numbers; but I did leave still smiling and even chuckling as I was once again recalled how funny it is when a man dresses as a woman and everyone around him reacts in such naïve and outrageous ways.

Where’s Charley continues at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, through Sunday, May 17.

Rating: 4 E’s

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