show: (l-r) Christopher Fitzgerald and Jessica Stone in
By Ralph Hamman
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
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,
Mercifully, he is never far away, and Fitzgerald’s Charley
is a comic masterpiece that makes us forgive all indulgences.
the Blue Sky
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
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.
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
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
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
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