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Revival show: (l-r) Christopher Fitzgerald and Jessica Stone in Where’s Charley?

Saving Farce
By Ralph Hamman

Where’s Charley?
Book by George Abbott, music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, directed by Nicholas Martin

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through June 30

After being chosen by the American Theatre Critics Association for a Tony Award for regional theater, the Williamstown Theatre Festival begins its season with Where’s Charley? As a nominating member of the association, I was a bit chagrined. Although I’ve long harbored a fondness for Charley’s songs, the work hardly shares the pedigree of past WTF musical choices. Based on Brandon Thomas’ famous 1893 farce, Charley’s Aunt, Where’s Charley? is an unassuming confection known by many as a star vehicle for Ray Bolger and hardly regarded as a staple of American musical theater.

I confess to underestimation.

It takes a little time for the spark to ignite in James Noone’s disappointingly realized first scene setting of Charley Wyckeham’s and Jack Chesney’s room at Oxford University. Meant to suggest the style of late 19th-century theatricalism, parts of it are too cartoonish (a window seems executed by a primary-school art class) and distract rather than complement. By the time the second song is sung and the action shifts to the garden, however, the actors, material and design enchant.

The simple plot involves a scheme for Charley to impersonate his wealthy aunt, Donna Lucia, so that he and Chesney will not be left chaperoneless (and thus dateless) with their respective love interests, Amy and Kitty. Thus, Charley must constantly appear in and out of costume as himself and his amply bosomed aunt. Add to this two fathers, Sir Francis Chesney and Lord Spettigue, who see financial salvation through marriage to Charley’s phony aunt and the unexpected arrival of the real aunt from Brazil. The original play is very funny in the right hands; the musical retains all the humor and adds more. There is also a high quotient of charm and wit courtesy of Loesser’s music and lyrics, which would land with even more impact were the actors not wearing silly head microphones.

The best way to play farce is to make the characters realistically believable so as to ground the highly unlikely circumstances, and Nicholas Martin has assembled a mostly stellar cast who mostly play the material for truth. A long way from the unruffled sophisticates he has often played, Paxton Whitehead allows himself to be mercilessly ridiculed as the old rogue, Spettigue, and even salvages a running gag that would otherwise cause one to gag. Throughout, his famous foghorn voice cuts through the nonsense in extremely amusing counterpoint.

Similarly, as Sir Francis, Simon Jones approaches the mayhem with dignity in a likeable low-key manner that helps to keep matters realistic. As his son, Jack, David Turner holds his own against the show’s showiest role, and we don’t realize until later how much he has done to keep the plausibility factor high. As Kitty, his love interest, Sara Schmidt is appealing and of impressive voice.

Jessica Stone is a thoroughly delightful Amy and develops from a cute kewpie doll into a young woman of substance and surprise. Her delivery of the difficult solo, “The Woman in His Room,” is effortless and becomes the show’s penultimate thrill.

But the success of this show ultimately falls on the shoulders of the actor who plays Charley. It’s a tour-de-force role that allows a talented actor the chance to make quick changes from imaginary aunt to swooning lover. I loved Charley, but I came to dislike his aunt.

While good much of the time as the aunt, Christopher Fitzgerald engages in enough overacted bits to seriously upset one’s suspension of disbelief. It’s an appeal to the lowest denominator, and, to paraphrase Shakespeare, cannot but make the judicious grieve. Matters like mixing tea in a top hat, tossing sugar cubes, breaking into a Brazilian dance and other bits of hedonistic clowning net cheap laughs that do indeed make one wonder, “Where’s Charley?”

Mercifully, he is never far away, and Fitzgerald’s Charley is a comic masterpiece that makes us forgive all indulgences.

Students of Love

Under the Blue Sky
By David Eldridge, directed by John Erman

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, June 19

For the first two acts of this intermissionless three-act play, the title Under the Blue Sky made about as much sense as, say, calling The Lower Depths something like Green Pastures. Blue does dominate the first act of this play about three couples (dramatized one per act) but it is the cold, claustrophobic blue of Nick’s London flat. A similar coolness emerges at the beginning of the second act, played against a rain-splattered window in Graham’s bedroom in Essex, but here blue is less a color than a thematic tone or mental state. It is not until the third act, set in Anne’s garden, that the darkness and chill of these two acts is suddenly replaced by a cloudless blue sky that is so bright as to nearly hurt our eyes.

What the seemingly disparate acts have in common is that each concerns an awkward romantic attraction/courtship between two teachers. As the couples bump, graze, collide, spar and dance, one is struck at how alike they are to their inexperienced adolescent charges.

Perhaps Eldridge has chosen teachers because they live sizable portions of their lives as perennial observers to the heartaches, misunderstandings, anticipations and exultations of young people discovering love. Or perhaps it is because some teachers have in common with their students a sensitivity that makes them especially susceptible to turmoil and adventurous creativity. Or it may be that some, particularly those in private schools (which is where all the characters in this play end up), find in the profession a Neverland reprieve from ordinary life.

Whatever the case, his six subjects live out a series of encounters that are not unlike the grapplings of adolescents trying to come to terms with who they are in relationship to the world, as signified by a significant other. Actually, the play has something of the shape of a troubled (is there any other kind?) adolescence. The first two acts represent its nightmares in terms of unrequited love and obsession; the third represents its joy and the emergence from that period of life into one of relative stability.

The acting and direction are as assured as the writing, with Marsha Mason and Michael Gaston deeply touching as the oldest couple, who finally get to love under a blue sky. Rob Campbell and Annabella Sciorra create a couple on the verge of psychological violence, with the sirenlike Sciorra managing to underlay a fierce nymphomania with hints of vulnerability. Most compelling is Vera Farmiga, who dances a fragile yet dangerous duet with Tate Donovan. Reams of subtext sweep across her face and stimulate her entire presence into being a sort of supersensitive seismograph to Donovan’s every word and action.


Big as Life

Book by Joseph Stein, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, adapted by Nikos Kazantzakis, directed by James Warwick

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through July 6

I can understand executive director Kate Maguire’s desire to produce Zorba, particularly at this time in our history where meaningless sudden death is not a distant concern and warring parts of the world are poised on the brink of mutual annihilation. At the heart of this musical is an appeal to live, a timeless message of a will to peace that transcends forgiveness and organized religion. Alexis Zorba, a Greek workman, says, “The only real death is the death we die every day by not living,” and his story is a repudiation of war and a plea to love. This is the constant lesson of Zorba, who knows that the world, like himself, is flawed and that it is of little benefit to pass judgment on other people for faults we share.

So, too, is Zorba, the musical, flawed. But, somehow, the work and its production at the Berkshire Theatre Festival rise above the flaws. Never underestimate the power of heart and belief.

It is probably a mistake to play well-known strains from the intoxicating Mikis Theodorkis film score before the play. It calls to mind one of the greatest screen adaptations of a piece of worthy literature and one of the richest film performances in Anthony Quinn’s Zorba.

Had the reliable John Kander created a score to compete with that of Theodorkis, and had Joseph Stein managed to capture more of the sweep of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, it might have satisfied more completely. But one is left vaguely hungry for some missing pieces of the masterpiece. It may just be that Zorba the Greek is just too big to contain on the stage.

If anyone could find the music and lyrics to make it work, one would expect that it would be Kander and Fred Ebb, who have at least three major triumphs to their credit. They give it a solid and sincere try, but the music never drives one irresistibly to want to dance, and some numbers seem innocuous, repetitive or, in the case of “Happy Birthday,” unnecessary. They do, however, provide the flavor of Greece, which is not a bad place to be on a hot Berkshire night. And lesser Kander and Ebb is still better than most of what passes for musical theater today.

At least Stein has culled some of the most important dialogue from the book and has given Zorba a character of sufficiently more depth than is to be found in many musicals.

So, why then does the BTF production work? Simple: Zorba himself. His spirit infuses the show, and in Thom Christopher, director James Warwick has a Zorba to make one forget, at least for an evening, the mighty Quinn. This is a major feat, to capture the soul of one of the greatest characters in modern literature.

Warmth, canniness, love, sorrow, humor, passion and a bit of divine madness that propels one to dance are all contained in Christopher’s infectious performance. He is barely on stage for a few minutes when we feel the presence of an old friend and close confidante. He is so at home in the role that we readily forgive a wrong note (actually, it helps) with the same ease that Zorba’s young employer, Niko, forgives Zorba for squandering his money.

Powerful supporting performances are given by a trio of actors: Walter Hudson, wonderful last year in H.M.S. Pinafore and My Fair Lady, again offers great character work as the alternately comic and dangerous Mavrodani. Mark Edgar Stephens gives powerful voice and concentrated restraint to Niko, and carefully crafts Niko’s development into a new man by the play’s end. Extremely impressive is Maree Johnson, a formidable beauty with features to rival Irene Papas in her youth, who is quietly eloquent and compelling as the Widow. With barely a word, she projects depths of yearning and passion that the ancient Greek society in Crete has made her suppress. When she finally sings, we are riveted.

Excellent work is also contributed by Ramzi Khalaf, Lee Zarrett and the radiant Isadora Wolfe, whose dancing seduces more than merely Zorba.

As a sort of chorus-leader-cum- narrator, Melissa Hart has a strong presence, but it and her belting song voice lack variety and begin to grate. One can only take so many of her “knowing” looks before wondering if she really knows anything.

There is a refreshing esprit de corps among the ensemble, who bring real life and passion on Tim Saternow’s marvelous foldout set that has been lovingly constructed by the BTF’s continually impressive tech corps. They have learned Zorba’s lessons.


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