Apple Tree Theatre
Transferring successful plays from Chicago to the suburbs seems like a terrific idea to me. The suburban audience is vast and full of people who enjoy theater. Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre, located nearly 25 miles north of the Loop, has 22,500 subscribers--more than any theater in the Chicago area. But when I suggest this idea to producers and artistic directors, I get the same reaction: suburbanites are only interested in light comedies and musicals.
Nah, I reply. Look at the Apple Tree Theatre in Highland Park. Their production of Amadeus a couple of seasons ago was amazing, and they walked off with the major Joseph Jefferson awards for Sweeney Todd. Granted, Sweeney Todd is a musical, but it's about a woman who prepares meat pies using the people murdered by the barber whose shop is above hers--not exactly light fare.
I may have to stop pointing to Apple Tree as an example of what suburban theater can be. Comfortably ensconced in a brand-new theater above a shopping center in the heart of Highland Park, Apple Tree now seems dedicated to the proposition that suburbanites want only light comedies and musicals. At any rate, the theater's premiere production, Where's Charley?, is so light it practically levitates.
Where's Charley? is a musical version of Charley's Aunt, written in 1892 by Brandon Thomas. The play has been a favorite with high school students and community-theater groups for nearly a century, largely because one of the actors gets to prance around in a dress--which, of course, is always good for a laugh.
In the original, Jack Chesney and Charley Wykeham, well-to-do students who share rooms at Oxford University, want to invite two young ladies up for tea. Since they live in Victorian England, such an affair requires a chaperon, and Charley has asked his aunt to join them. However, she fails to arrive on the train, forcing Jack and Charley to give up an afternoon with their beloved girlfriends. But by sheer coincidence, a friend involved in the college "theatrical" has just received his costume--a dowdy black dress complete with bonnet and white wig. As soon as they see the Costume, Jack and Charley press their friend into service as Charley's aunt and proceed with their plans.
Shortly after World War II, veteran director George Abbott collaborated with songwriter Frank Loesser on a musical version of Charley's Aunt, sticking to the original plot with one exception. Instead of a friend masquerading as Charley's aunt, Charley does so himself, which transforms the comedy into a full-blown farce. Dressed up as his aunt, Charley becomes a confidant for his own girlfriend, Amy Spettigue, and gets to go everywhere with her--even into the room where the young ladies are getting dressed for the ball. There is a down side to his disguise: Charley's aunt is a very rich widow, so while wearing the dress, Charley is pursued aggressively by Amy's greedy uncle, who wants to marry "her."
The show is shamelessly silly, but Apple Tree does it so well. The production is actually enjoyable, largely because of Ross Lehman's performance as Charley. Lehman is not a polished actor, but like an untrained piano player who has a strong sense of rhythm and melody, he is instinctively entertaining. In Apple Tree's memorable production of Amadeus, Lehman brilliantly portrayed Mozart as a shrill, childish young man who was always giggling at his own scatological jokes. Then he just as brilliantly transformed the character into a dying genius sobered by pain and dread. Most recently, Lehman was a standout as Harpo Marx in the National Jewish Theater's production of Minnie's Boys. It's obvious Lehman learned a thing or two about comedy by studying the Marx Brothers. "Pernambuco," the final number in the first act of Where's Charley?, looks like it was lifted directly from a Marx Brothers movie; Lehman, in his Victorian dress, dances, sings, and executes an amazing flip. Early in the second act, Lehman becomes a dapper song-and-dance man, leading the audience in a sing-along of "Once in Love With Amy"--the bit that Ray Bolger made famous in the original production. Lehman's specialty, however, is a deadpan manner that rivals Buster Keaton's. "Well I'm not going to marry him," Charley huffs when informed that Mr. Spettigue is in love with him. Then, with an expression that makes him look like an indignant basset hound, he adds, "He's not my type."
Lehman has help from other talented cast members. In fact, this production is a triumph of casting. Mary Ernster, one of the most talented performers in Chicago musical theater, creates a plausible personality for Kitty Verdun, the fetching, flirtatious girlfriend of Jack Chesney, who is played with a wonderfully vacant grin by Todd Jackson. Mary Hager cleverly portrays Amy as a virtuous "good girl" aggressively repressing her pent-up libido. Jerry O'Boyle deftly allows Mr. Spettigue's slimy morals to show through his unctuous manners. And Lee Strawn depicts Jack's widowed father as a paragon of Victorian wit and charm.
With a mortgage to pay, Apple Tree is apparently playing it safe with Where's Charley? The theater also just announced that the "mystery musical" on the season schedule will be Drood, a musical so light it floats off without an ending--the audience at each performance votes on who the killer is. If light and frothy is what suburbanites want, Apple Tree's production of Where's Charley? certainly provides it. Yet the well-selected cast, under Gary Griffin's direction, actually serves up this confection with enough charm and intelligence to make it appetizing.