Review: ‘Charley’s Aunt’ at Fells Point Corner Theatre

At 126 years old and still going strong, Charley’s Aunt by Brandon Thomas has lost none of its power to tickle an audience’s funny bone. Fells Point Corner Theatre’s production keeps the energy and laughs flowing.

Charley's Aunt plays through December 23 at Fells Point Corner Theatre. Photo by Trent Haines-Hopper.
Charley’s Aunt plays through December 23 at Fells Point Corner Theatre. Photo by Trent Haines-Hopper.

For anyone who may have been in theatrical hibernation since the play’s 1892 debut, the set-up involves two upper-class, but impecunious, students at Oxford: the enthusiastic, over-excitable Jack Chesney (Jon Meeker) and the even more enthusiastic, hyper-excitable Charles Wykeham (Brandon Richards). Both are swooning with love. But how to find an opportunity to declare their feelings to the objects of their affection, consistent with late-Victorian proprieties?

The opportunity arrives in the form of a projected visit from the eponymous aunt: she can fill the required chaperone role. But wait: she telegraphs that she will be delayed, so what to do since the girls are about to arrive? The two swains dragoon a friend, Lord Fancourt Babberly (David Shoemaker), into donning a dress and wig to impersonate the aunt, Donna Lucia, a wealthy widow from Brazil (“Where the nuts come from,” in the play’s most famous line). Babbs, as he is known to his friends, must then navigate both the demands of an impromptu drag performance and burgeoning plot complications.  

Shoemaker does so with a fine sense of timing while registering wry, sometimes incredulous reactions to the shenanigans around him, avoiding the temptation to overplay. The overall impression is reminiscent of Jack Lemon’s character in Some Like It Hot.

Enter the girls: Kitty Verdun (Kellie Podsednik), in love with Jack; Amy Spettigue (Alice Gibson), in love with Charley; and, in the second act, Ela Delahay (Jennifer Skarzinski), in love with Babbs. They are bubbly, giddy, and as filled to the brim with girlish glee as any Gilbert and Sullivan ingénue. It wouldn’t have seemed out of place had they burst into “How Beautifully Blue the Sky” or “Three Little Maids from School” at some point (Charley’s Aunt opened only seven years after The Mikado). Ela wins the blue ribbon for being the giddiest of the lot, while Kitty shows a bit of pragmatism in the second act.

Then, just as the boys’ ruse seems to be making progress, the real Donna Lucia (Maribeth Vogel) appears. The only level-headed character in the play, the warmly wise Donna Lucia quickly decides to play along, and her efforts are key to ensuring a happy ending for everyone.

Playwright Thomas was a renowned character actor in his day, and he created some juicy character roles in Charley’s Aunt. There’s Jack’s hearty father, Sir Francis (Michael Panzarrotto), who isn’t about to let a little thing like financial disaster diminish his cheerful mien. There’s the disagreeable, smarmy, gold-digging Stephen Spettigue (Tom Wyatt), who pursues the false Donna Lucia in hopes of a big payday. Best of all, there’s Brassett (Peter Wilkes), the boys’ veteran butler, who has seen everything, is surprised at nothing, and whatever the madness around him, keeps calm and carries on.  

Kristen Cooley directs with a sure hand throughout. Her signal moment is a speeded-up, silent-movie-style chase scene, complete with blinking stage lights, that ends Act I and begins Act II. The chase nicely emphasizes the farcical tone of the entire venture.

Given its setting, this is an accent show. The actors’ British accents are done convincingly and consistently.

Moe Conn solves the problem of what is essentially a two-set show on the small Fells Point stage by using flats that swing out at various angles to delineate Jack’s rooms from the garden. While the set tends to shake a bit when doors close, it is substantial enough to bear the climbing through windows and running through doors that occur during the chase scene.

Charley's Aunt plays through December 23 at Fells Point Corner Theatre. Photo by Trent Haines-Hopper.
Charley’s Aunt plays through December 23 at Fells Point Corner Theatre. Photo by Trent Haines-Hopper.

The costumes (credited to Cooley, Barbara Madison Hauck, and Grayson Owen) are period-appropriate and attractive. Each character gets his or her own look – there are no identical suits or dresses. Kitty’s dress is particularly effective, and Babbs’ dress is just the right length to occasionally show a bit of trouser leg. The only blemish is the quite hideous white wig borne by Spettigue.

A minor curiosity about the production concerns the selection of pre-show and scene change music. “Three Little Maids…” appears, as does “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay,” an 1891 hit referenced in the script, both fully appropriate for the time and place of the play. But a Scott Joplin rag? Jimmy Cagney singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy”?  “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” even? Go figure.

Fells Point Corner Theatre is a long-established company, this year transitioning from its roots as a community theater to being a small non-equity professional troupe. If the quality of this delightful production is any indication, the transition promises to be a successful one.  

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.

Charley’s Aunt plays through December 23, 2018, at the Fells Point Corner Theatre – 251 South Ann Street in Baltimore MD. For tickets, call (410) 276-7837 or go online.

Note: the theater is located in a neighborhood in which street parking is extremely limited. If you are driving to the show, it’s well to take advantage of the theater’s five-dollar parking pass to a nearby private parking lot. See the theater’s website for details.