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Slap-dash Slapstick

Scott Wichmann hams it up in drag, but the hurried pace of “Where’s Charley?” doesn’t live up to its comic potential.

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Jan Guarino directs the show into a Woody-Woodpecker-like frenzy. By and large, it works because Wichmann seems to defy the laws of physics as he flies around the stage. There are numerous physical allusions in his performance: The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Warner Brothers cartoons, and the rubbery movement of Ray Bolger (the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz), who played Charley in the original Broadway production.

With the exception of an excellent duet between Jack’s father (Russell Rowland) and the real Donna Lucia (Sara Maynard Sommers), the musical performances are solid but not particularly memorable. In many ways, the ensemble numbers are more effective than the solo performances because choreographer Leslie Owens-Harrington always seems to get the most out of a space. Her bubbly first act finale fills the stage with Carmen Miranda knockoffs.

Ron Keller’s scenery looks as if it was assembled from a giant Dover sticker book of Victorian motifs. The two-dimensional scheme of Bloomsbury pastels isn’t very interesting to the eye, but is appropriate for a show that’s more interested in Saturday morning laughs than setting moods.

Sue Griffin’s excellent second act ballroom costumes seem to pop up from the stage. It’s the one element of the production that seems layered and rounded.

The deliberate comic-book feel of the production means there isn’t much in the way of character development. It’s not a problem as long as you’re laughing. But Charley’s predicament never seems uncomfortable because he’s always in perfect command of the situation. Occasionally, Wichmann begins to explore the temptations of gender-bending but then sprints to the next joke without discovering any of the “Some-Like-it-Hot” insights available to a man in drag.

Wichmann repeatedly bulldozes his way through one of stage comedy’s best lines. Whenever Charley is introduced as his aunt, he invariably says that he’s from “Brazil…where the nuts come from.” Without pausing a beat or two after “Brazil,” Wichmann deprives the audience the satisfaction of anticipating the rest of the line. This missing detail is emblematic of a production that goes all out for slapstick humor but doesn’t sweat the details. Fortunately, the slapstick is funny enough to overcome the lack of nuance. S

“Where’s Charley?” continues through Aug. 8 at the Barksdale Theatre. Tickets cost $32-$36, call 282-2620.

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