Just when the world outside seems nearly too much to bear, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ) takes us back in time to an early record-breaker, the runaway comedy “Charley’s Aunt.” Darling of the 1892 “Hunt Bespeak,” the annual social event at Bury St. Edmunds, Brandon Thomas’ play was such a hit, its London premiere engagement broke every record for ANY kind of play with a run of four years and 1,466 performances. Equally popular on this side of the pond, “Charley’s Aunt” came to Broadway in 1893 and there have been myriad versions, from silent film to the musical adaptation “Where’s Charley?” with Ray Bolger in the title role with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser (“Once in Love with Amy,” anyone?). This show is madcap, physical comedy that will have you laughing through three acts and two intermissions. This is no mean feat for any theatre and this charming play will have you skipping along with your own limerence, catching fire from the winsome cast.
Jack (Aaron McDaniel) is puzzling over how to write a letter to the woman he wants to marry, one Kitty Verdun (Erica Knight). His ideas all come to naught and his knowing butler Brassett (Peter Simon Hilton) is the perfect straight man for Jack’s comic peregrinations. Solid, stolid and experienced, Brassett is as bold as his name and twice as useful. Jack hatches the plan to invite Kitty to lunch, but it cannot be just for two in this late Victorian setting–it must be a party. Enter Charley Wykeham (Isaac Hickox-Young). Charley is equally smitten with his kitten, named Amy Spettigue (Emiley Kiser) and, of course, Kitty and Amy are besties, as are the young men. The party, however, needs a chaperone.
The boys’ friend Lord Fancourt Babberly (Seamus Mulcahy) is a sharp, happy-go-lucky, breezy fellow, who loves a good time. This has led to a temporary reversal in fortunes as he’s lost a princely sum at cards to a dying man on an ocean cruise. It didn’t hurt that Babbs fell for the man’s daughter. Ah, shades of “Titanic,” the film! A fan and participant in amateur theatricals, Babbs has agreed to play an older woman in a show and dresses for his friends–only to find himself having greatness thrust upon him when the arriving young women think that he is Charley’s Aunt, and therefore their chaperone, since they cannot be alone with young men and a butler, and so preserve their reputations. And thus, the fun begins.
The two young suitors and their beauties are not the only lovers about. Amy’s uncle is also Kitty’s guardian, Stephen Spettigue (John Ahlin) and he knows well the value of a pound. Charley’s Aunt happens to be Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez, an expatriate Englishwoman who is the widow, and sole heir, of a Brazilian millionaire and very much worth the chase. Jack’s dad, Colonel Sir Francis Chesney (David Andrew MacDonald), a widower himself, has some bad financial news for their family, and Donna Lucia seems tailor-made to fix their problems. You can see where this thread is going. The first act lays down the foundation for the rich tapestry of mayhem to come, and when the real Donna Lucia (Erika Rolfsrud) arrives with her ward, the lovely Ela Delahay (Sally Kingsford), the fun well and truly begins.
This ensemble embraces physical comedy like a lover, and Joseph Discher’s direction is more like choreography, as the cast does a grapevine around the garden. The sight of John Ahlin’s Spettigue chasing after Mulcahy’s Donna Lucia is priceless. Every member of the ensemble is gifted with superb timing and Jack and Charley’s inept wooing, which is complemented by Kitty and Amy’s, wiles is pure delight. Mulcahy’s Donna Lucia meeting Rolfsrud’s Donna Lucia is something that I’m still enjoying again and again in my mind, as well Rolfsrud’s masterful balance, as her Donna Lucia keeps all of her plates spinning, as she executes the plan of her counter-farce, which becomes the classic happy ending for all. The what, where, how, and whom is something you simply must see for yourself. In this time when people swipe left and right online for partners and someone’s photo is easy to find, contemplating what the world was like when words were all we knew of someone is refreshing and bold. Experience the past to revel in the future.
Time flies, as does Donna Lucia. This show runs through November 18 and is a delightful way to spend time with family before Thanksgiving. Call 973/408-5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org
for your tickets today!