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First Nighter: City Center Encores! Series <em>Where's Charley?</em> All-Singing, All-Dancing, All-Lovable

At a time when spectacle is the trend in musicals on Broadway, the appeal of something merely charming may not be strong. There was a time, however, when charm counted, and there was no "merely" about it.
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At a time when spectacle is the trend in musicals on Broadway, the appeal of something merely charming may not be strong. There was a time, however, when charm counted, and there was no "merely" about it.

During that '20s-'40s era -- and into the '50s and even the '60s with She Loves Me -- there were fewer tuners more utterly charming than Where's Charley?, the Frank Loesser-George Abbott diversion that opened in 1948 with nimble, long-legged Ray "Scarecrow" Bolger in the title role and reminding audiences how mesmerizing he'd been a dozen years earlier tapping furiously in George Balanchine's "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" ballet from On Your Toes.

Just about every ounce of that surpassing Where's Charley? charm radiates in the Encores! series revival. It's on this weekend at City Center as directed with feathery fingers by John Doyle, musical directed by Rob Berman with an equally weightless baton and choreographed by Alex Sanchez with more backward glances to Agnes de Mille than to Balanchine, who originally created the enterprise's dances.

One of those winning turns is, of course, the irresistible routine Bolger did after singing Loesser's catchy "Once in Love With Amy." The inspired sequence is probably recalled by those who saw the show then as the most successful audience sing-along ever promoted on the Great White Way.

Perhaps necessary to explain in 2011, Where's Charley? is adapted from Brandon Thomas's click comedy Charley's Aunt, which bowed on the London stage in 1892. It follows the title character (Rob McClure here) through several hours of a bright spring day during which he has to impersonate his delayed aunt (Rebecca Luker, when the character eventually arrives) in order to provide the required chaperone for that beloved Amy (Lauren Worsham) and her friend Kitty (Jill Paice), who's being sparked by his school pal Jack (Sebastian Arcelus).

During the raucous action, Charley in garish aunt get-up (amusing garb Ann Hould-Ward found) is wooed by Amy's overbearing guardian Stephen Spettigue (Dakin Matthews) as well as briefly by Frank's likable dad Sir Francis Chesney (Howard McGillin). Throughout, the embarrassing things that usually occur in farce occur, until all comes right, as students on the grounds where the play unfolds congregate for chorus numbers.

It may be the lemon-soufflé period-piece that is Where's Charley? takes a certain amount of getting used to now, because even 60-plus years ago, it was deliberately old-fashioned, even something of an operetta. While Abbott took care in his usual master's manner to keep it moving apace, Loesser scrupulously aimed for 1890s flavor in his score. The words-and-music man, it should be remembered, was not only a stickler about context for his ditties. He was also one of Broadway's most experimental writers when it came to form, and every experiment on this occasion pays off like a stuck one-armed bandit. (Compare this score with the dapper, demotic material he supplied Guys and Dolls only two years later and revel in the broad spectrum of Loesser's genius.)

As a result, nostalgic tune follows nostalgic tune with gratifying regularity throughout Where's Charley?. And, don't you know that back in the day when Broadway songs were often the songs on the Hit Parade, several of these instantly became national treasures -- among them, Sarah Vaughan's emotional "My Darling, My Darling." Notably in this production "The New Ashmolean Marching Society and Students' Conservatory Band" is presented without the singers toting instruments, despite director Doyle's becoming known stateside for having actors in his idiosyncratic re-dos of Sweeney Todd and Company carry instruments they actually play.

Supposedly, the Encores! series consists of staged readings, and to the extent that the players carry black binders and flip pages in them occasionally, it is that. But performers worth their salt and sass -- everyone here is, particularly in the vocal department -- only pay figurative lip-service to the Equity rule. The true lip-serve is given over to offering all-stops-out performances, something center-of-attention McClure does to his utmost, which is pretty "ut" indeed. The fellow -- switching often within seconds into and out of Aunt Lucy's sort-of-Brazilian outfit -- sings, dances, jokes, mugs and romances with the kind of verve that should propel him from recognizable player to hurrahed musical leading-man, if only the right subsequent part comes along.

Arcelus, who spent the recent Christmas season as the elf in Elf the Musical -- and, curiously enough, gave the impression of mixing Ray Bolger's gifts with Danny Kaye's -- switches to suave here without in the least stripping gears. And he sure is handsome. Worsham and Paice are, respectively, petite and lovely and long and lovely. Plus they're both soubrette-spirited. Luker and McGillin -- taking on middle-aged roles with lively dignity -- add star wattage to Loesser's enchanting "Lovelier Than Ever." Matthews gets mileage out of charging what seems miles after the elusive ersatz Charley's aunt, and Jeff Brooks does well as Jack's saturnine butler.

No argument can be made that Where's Charley? -- which doesn't seem to have been tweaked for this dusting-off -- is one of the indisputably great Broadway musicals, but it remains unfailingly entertaining. Moreover, compared to today's approach to the genre -- when the songs' high quality can be a tertiary concern -- it comes across as little short of a masterpiece. To paraphrase its best-known song, once in love with Charley?, always in love with Charley?.

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