The book is first for stage by screenwriter A J Carothers (who, not coincidentally, penned Disney’s 1967 Tommy Steele vehicle “The Happiest Millionaire,” with songs by the Shermans). It’s based on Clemence Dane’s script for the 1938 British feature “St. Martin’s Lane,” released Stateside as “Sidewalks of London.”
Despite several engaging characters and some good lines, the book is the show’s chief drawback, with a complicated second act that audiences will find depressing or simply unresolved. The arbitrary death of a sympathetic character is pointless and off-putting (setting up parallels between onset of World War II and decline of music hall-styled busking as an art form, killed off by the Blitz).
Wherever possible, story is set aside for a series of show-stopping numbers featuring the relentlessly peppy Tune and 10 ensemble members who also act as sort of a Greek chorus, warning Charley to “Watch out” when he begins to take a shine to Libby; they also fill in several other subordinate roles.
While the intentionally wimpy “When the Moonlight’s Bright in Brighton” begins to wear thin after an interminable series of reprises, audience jaws are likely to drop at numbers like the mass-tap “Tap ‘Appy Feet.”
Numbers are being subtracted as show inches toward Broadway: “What to Do with ‘Er,””Plain Jane” and “Memory Ballet” were performed in its April premiere in Louisville, but are nowhere to be found now, evidently destined for one of those albums of songs that never made it to the Great White Way.
Tony Walton has designed some imaginative sets, allowing director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun to stage action in unusual and sometimes cinematic ways. For instance, action on the Garrick stage is viewed from outside the theater, then from a p.o.v. behind the actors (though Calhoun shirks the opportunity to have the cast perform that entire number with their backs to the live audience).
Lewis and Nichols are an engaging pair in underwritten parts, with Lewis getting the best number not dominated by Tune, the amusing “Hula Love Song.” The other leading roles are even more cardboard, though limned well enough.
Aside from Charley and Libby, the strongest presence may be that of Gladys’ terrier, Mate, a marionette brilliantly characterized and manipulated by Phillip Huber.
The musical arrangements, by former Long Beach Civic Light Opera resident conductor John McDaniel (he also arranged for the recent Tune/Calhoun “Grease”) are fine, and Brian Ronan’s amplification system made the show sound clear.
Show has a convoluted history, having been pitched to Steele as a musical to be called “Piccadilly,” after the one song then written for it (long ago dropped from the score); British impresario Lord Delfont optioned the property twice, without doing anything with it. Calhoun heard a version called “Blow Us a Kiss” in the mid-’80s (that song remains).
More recently the show was known as “Busker Alley,” changed to “Stage Door Charley” prior to its Louisville premiere, when it was determined that heartland audiences didn’t know what a busker is. In S.F., the title was changed again, to “Buskers.”
Following show’s Orange County run (as “Stage Door Charley” again, to capitalize — according to theater spokesmen — on existing promotional material), title is set to be changed back to “Buskers,” while show continues its lengthy tour en route to a projected fall Broadway opening. So hold on to those “Busker Alley” or “Stage Door Charley” souvenirs.