Every once in a while, it sure is nice to be reminded that angst doesn't have to define art. To this end, it is a pity that the Boston Conservatory Theater performance of Where's Charley has already closed. Running from November 19 to 22, Where's Charley was a delightful reminder of the heyday of musical theater in the 1950s. No complicated or twisted plot here; just a comic combo of expertly done song-and-dance numbers, flawless acting and a little crossdressing to round out the fun.
Set in 1892, the musical revolves around the escapades of Charley Wykeham and Jack Chesney, two Oxford University students. As the musical opens, Charley and Jack have invited their respective girlfriends, Amy and Kitty, to lunch in their rooms with the intention of proposing to them. Their chaperone is supposed to be Donna Lucia D'Alvadorez, Charley's Brazilian aunt, who is due on the next train. Unfortunately, Donna Lucia sends a note saying that she won't be coming after all, and Jack decides that Charley should impersonate his aunt. Donna Lucia, however, happens to be a millionaire, and Charley soon finds himself being pursued by Jack's widowed father, Sir Francis, as well as Amy's overprotective uncle, Mr. Spettigue, making for several hilarious rounds of mistaken identities and ruffled personalities.
The BCT's performance actually represented a 50th anniversary performance of the musical, which opened on Broadway in 1948 and ran for an impressive 792 shows. Featuring music and lyrics by Broadway great Frank Loesser, Where's Charley was later turned into a movie in 1952. The movie starred Ray Bolger, better known as the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, who won a Tony for his performance as the original Charley in 1949.
Matt Bauer, endearing as an energetic, tap-dancing dynamo in the part of Charley, would have done Bolger proud; he exuded a reckless spirit in defiance of the implicit boundary between performer and audience, even inviting the audience to sing with him in the rousing "Once in Love with Amy." Bauer's high tenor and reedy voice made his deception as Charley's aunt believable, and he slipped with ease into the role of his own aunt, offering pouty and witty observations about women and relationships while playing "hard-to-get" with Sir Francis and Mr. Spettigue.
Chris Carfizzi and Darren Dunstan, in the two older male roles of Spettigue and Sir Francis, respectively, made hilarious counterparts to each other, the fiery Scottish Spettigue howling lustily as he dashed after Lucia, while the dignified Sir Francis simply offered "her" a white carnation from his buttonhole. Ultimately, every member of the cast was perfect for his or her part, from the boisterous group of Charley and Jack's Oxford chums to the "real" Donna Lucia (Margaret McCormick), who made an entrance about halfway through the performance but didn't reveal her true identity until the end of the musical.
In spite of the overall cheeriness of the production, however, it wasn't at all unidimensional. Several of Loesser's songs deserve recognition for their diverse, rather surprising content, which ran the gamut from Latin to lyrical and highlighted the differences between the two primary couples in question, i.e. Kitty and Jack versus Charley and Amy. Whereas Kitty and Jack were content with their love, a fact reflected in the unvarying sweetness and joyful lyrics of their songs, Amy and Charley were more spontaneous as people and had less equanimity as characters. At one point, Amy sang a solo expressing her mixed feelings about Charley, her lyrical musings about Charley's goodness interspersed with angry remembrances of a "picture of that woman in his room," something we had heard nothing about until that point. A duet Kitty and Jack sang about the what the future may hold was similarly original in content, bringing up subjects such as miniskirts and stereopticals, and fraught with tension between the couple.
Other scenes gave some indication that the production was updated for a '90s audience; this may well be the case, as Boston Conservatory faculty member Michelle Chass redid the choreography for this performance. Case in point: a random "flashback" to Donna Lucia's life in the steamy tropical forests of Brazil introduced an unmistakable erotic element into the performance a bit out of keeping with the British conservatism played up by the rest of the musical. Maybe it wouldn't have flown 50 years ago, but it did enliven the stage without being overly out of place.
The one major flaw in this otherwise gorgeous performance was the orchestra, whose members were generally out of sync; their playing lacked the passion and conviction of the actors, and the lively score could have benefitted from more musical contrast. The brass section in particular seemed adept at blasting out the wrong notes altogether. Fortunately, the top-notch singing was often dazzling enough to make the orchestra sound more subdued by comparison.
Ultimately, the performance had an overall fairy tale-like atmosphere amply reinforced by the bright, pastel set, as well as the lovely Gilded Age costumes by designer Jana Howland. Maybe Where's Charley is an oldie, but it definitely is still a goodie.