The folks over at Encores did a pretty good job with the pretty good musical, Where’s Charley?, at City Center. I had a very good time, and if I focus on elements that made it stop short of being great, it’s not because of disappointment: I’m just figuring out what to say about it that will help the aspiring writers reading this.
Like Bells Are Ringing, which Encores did in the fall (and I wrote about here), Where’s Charley? is a star vehicle. It opened less than a decade after the beloved film of The Wizard of Oz came out and starred its hysterical lovably scarecrow, Ray Bolger. Think how exciting it must have been to go see the loose-jointed star live on Broadway. Certainly, you would have greeted him with applause on his first entrance. You’d anticipate amazing and amusing feats of dance. (I was going to say “dancing feats” but it looked wrong.) And lets admit what the friends of Dorothy admit at the end of The Wizard of Oz, he’s got a face that is lovable but not handsome, with bug eyes and a long nose. Crafted by the most experienced of writer-directors, George Abbott, Where’s Charley? fulfills our expectations of what a show with this particular star should be. There are jokes about the Bolger character having a face like a hatchet. He’s so charming, the audience loves the guy despite mild moral lapses. He dances both a crazy Latin number and a contageously head-over-heels, heels-well-over-floor burst of joy.
And now I come to praise Rob McClure. Who’s Rob McClure? I had no idea. But he landed the role of Charley at Encores and he’s very strong in every aspect. He has real charm, acts well, does a funny yet decipherable old lady voice, mellifluous singer, excellent dancer; he’s even romantic. Before seeing the show, a lot of young friends of mine were making fun of the title “Where’s Charley?” but, from the first scene, you clearly had to ask “Where’s Charley?” because there was nothing to distinguish Rob McClure’s Charley from his classmate, Jack. Like the young men in The Importance of Being Earnest, they seemed interchangeable (make that exactly like The Importance of Being Earnest). In 1948, an audience filled with Ray Bolger fans could easily tell him from the other guy. This week, we could not.
And Rob, if you’re reading this, I hate to break this to you, but you’re too damned handsome. In this photo, McClure is on the right, but even the guy in the sweater vest is too attractive to fully pull off Charley, a character who’s shortcomings of visage are joked about, gently, by the script and lyrics several times. This production, with its very short rehearsal schedule, came up short in the dance department. From enjoying “If I Only Had a Brain” a thousand times, we can surmise that any choreography for Ray Bolger would make good comic use of his outstanding flexibility. McClure is a different physical type, and while I was impressed by his terpsichorean powers, this presentation didn’t even attempt to capitalize on Charley’s linguini limbs, and took him out of the major ballet that closes Act One.
The writer who fashions a star vehicle is, in a way, locking in certain characteristics. Where’s Charley? can only be truly wonderful if cast with an elastic-if-ugly charming young star who comes off as straight but can also do drag. It’s a tall order, and I hate to appear to be blaming Rob McClure because I thought he did wonderfully in every aspect of his performance. Should the blame be given to Encores for not engaging such a star? Well, who would you cast? Jeffrey Denman could dance it, but he, too, is attractive, and he’s hardly a star.
Christopher Fitzgerald’s got the face, and comic chops, but he’s more of a frat boy than an Oxford student, lacking grace and romanticism. Does Jason Sudeikis dance?
Do you see how difficult the casting game is? Let’s think of what major star won fame by appearing in a film-for-the-whole-family in the past ten years… Oh, Daniel Radcliffe is already busy, singing another Frank Loesser score on Broadway.
Where’s Charley? is Loesser’s first Broadway score and it’s very interesting to see him struggle to find an effective tone for a turn-of-the-century British farce. Certainly, the best known-song, Once In Love With Amy, doesn’t sound anything like Oxford. Two waltzes are period enough, just not interesting enough. But the hysterical duet, Make a Miracle is a stately march that keeps picking up speed, amplifying Charley’s frustration most humorously. The chord sequence he later used in Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat turns up twice. Loesser’s soul was in modern jazz, and the way another duet begins is simply stunning. My Darling My Darling plays languidly up and down the whole tone scale like something by Debussy. Then two sustained chords lead us into a refrain with more traditional harmonies. But it, too, picks up speed, moving from a slow push-beat to a surprising pair of triplets. The bridge climaxes with a dramatic climb on the words “there’s not a thing I’m sane enough to say.” That’s masterful musical theatre writing, and within eight years Loesser followed Charley with Guys and Dolls and The Most Happy Fella, quite possibly the two best scores ever written for Broadway.