Springtime is looking lovelier than ever. So goes the hit ballad from Frank Loesser’s “Where’s Charley?” and so expresses the general sentiments this weekend at City Center. Encores! closes its 18th season on a high note with this delightful if slight piece from the musical comedy storehouse. When Rebecca Luker steps downstage center to sing about spring — or when newcomer Rob McClure scampers across the stage in a dowdy gown, pursued by two gold-digging old men — director John Doyle almost makes us think the spirit of old-fashioned musical comedy is alive and well.
“Where’s Charley?” which introduced songwriter Loesser (“Guys and Dolls,” “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”) to Broadway in 1948, was never state-of-the-art. Even then it looked positively ancient following “Carousel” and “Finian’s Rainbow,” with star Ray Bolger maneuvering it past a mediocre reception to a two-year run. George Abbott’s musicalization of the old Brandon Thomas 1892 farce “Charley’s Aunt” was seen by many as musty and creaky, traits that still stick to the material. But the score was sprightly and clever.
And it remains so. The audience at City Center visibly perks up with the coming of each song, with “Make a Miracle” (Loesser’s science fiction duet, about horseless carriages that fly) and the aforementioned “Lovelier Than Ever” standing out. The 1948 edition was boosted by the whimsical soft-shoe “Once in Love With Amy,” which became a showstopper when Bolger worked it into an audience sing-along. The 2011 audience at Encores gladly sings along as well.
Conceived as a vehicle for eccentric dancer Bolger (the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz”), “Where’s Charley?” has been all-but-unrevivable without him. Rob McClure, a little-known actor recently seen as a replacement Princeton/Rod in “Avenue Q,” doesn’t have the marquee name required to carry the piece, but he hits all bases with his singing, dancing, and clowning. Charley spends the evening scampering on and off stage; the plot revolves around an aspiring lover forced to masquerade as his own millionaire aunt from Brazil, “where the nuts come from.” McClure accomplishes this by comporting himself like a wind-up toy with the spring frequently wound too tight; his feet seem to locomote in place, like a cartoon character, before he spurts into flight.
McClure is supported by the equally talented trio of Sebastian Arcelus (“Elf”), Lauren Worsham, and Jill Paice as his friend and their girls. Dakin Matthews plays the mean guardian who venally lusts for Charley’s aunt’s money, while veteran Howard McGillin makes a welcome appearance as the father of one of the boys. It’s Luker, though, who casts a spell on the audience.
Credit Doyle, who keeps the action (and the actor playing Charley) in motion and who also trims George Abbott’s libretto, which benefits from the operation. Rob Berman ably turns out song after song from the podium, while choreographer Alex Sanchez provides some whimsical stepping for the “Pernambuco” and “New Ashmolean” numbers. (Brendon Stimson does a fine job leading the dancers in the latter.)
“Where’s Charley” has little viability as a commercial vehicle just now, unless someone like Matthew Morrison wants to do it. But it perfectly fits the bill for Encores, giving it a sprightly spring showcase with which to celebrate the centennial year of Frank Loesser.