Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee’s Summer Stock Theatre

Melody Top offered a rare revival of the largely forgotten musical comedy WHERE'S CHARLEY?, which mainly succeeded because of a strong perfomrance by Eddie Mekka. In his Sentinel review, Dean Jensen stated, "The opening night crowd virtually embraced Eddie Mekka as a fellow Milwaukeean by virtue of his being the buffoon in television's LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, which is set in the city. He provided some belly laughs by masquerading as a battle axe who has suitors breathlessly chasing after his skirts in pursuit of imagined millions."

WHERE'S CHARLEY? is a slice of ham

By Damien Jaques of the Milwaukee Journal, June 18, 1980

Any way you slice it, there is a big ham at the Melody Top.

His name is Eddie Mekka, he is the star of the new production at the Top, and he and director Donald Christy do their best to resuscitate the creaky, old show that limped into town Tuesday night.

There certainly are few musicals sillier than WHERE'S CHARLEY? (based on Brandon Thomas' equally silly CHARLEY'S AUNT), and American musical theater would not suffer if this old chestnut were buried beneath some high school stage, where it really belongs.

But if this confection must still be dragged on stage, Mekka and Christy proved Tuesday night that they are the men to do it.

There really is only one way to stage such a dinosaur as this, and that is to play it to the hilt, keeping it corny but controlled. Christy, who also directed the Melody Top's first production of the season, THE WIZ, does just that.

He has scooters and bicycles careening down the Top's aisles, and finds a nice, manic level of goofiness for his actors that doesn't insult the audience's intelligence. Christy's chief collaborator in this is Mekka, who is better known for his role of Carmine Ragusa on LAVERNE & SHIRLEY.

Mekka throws himself into the Charley role with energetic abandon. With fine timing, some necessary mugging and some audience-pleasing comic asides, he had everyone laughing at his ludicrous predicament.

Mekka was properly frenzied as the graduating collegian who must find time to woo his pretty and proper girlfriend while impersonating his rich aunt from Brazil. His singing was adequate, and while not a great dancer, he put a lot of effort into a nice dance routine while crooning "Once in Love with Amy."

Victor Raider-Wexler, who was a member of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater company this past season, is delightful as the old curmudgeon Spettigue, who is determined to marry Charley's aunt when he discovers how wealthy she is. Raider-Wexler chases the aunt, who is really Mekka dressed as his aunt, from one side of the Melody Top to another.

Valerie Lee is quite fetching as Charley's love Amy. She sings nicely and is definitely a worthy subject for "Once in Love with Amy."

The part of Charley's buddy and partner in fraud, Jack, is handled capably by Kevin Daly, and the lesser roles are sung and acted well.

Kitty Carlisle plays Charley's real aunt, and very little is asked of her. Her stage time is limited, and when she is on her primary duty is to look like a wealthy widow. She succeeds in her role.

Ken Ellis and Kitty Carlisle in WHERE'S CHARLEY? at Melody Top.

Ken Ellis and Kitty Carlisle posed for a photograph "backstage" during the run of WHERE'S CHARLEY?. Ken is now a voice teacher and coach based out of Charlottesville, Virginia. You may visit his resourceful website, filled with many photos from the summer of 1980 at the Top, by clicking here.


CHARLEY'S AUNT and Ancestors

This article about the theatrical property's history was taken from a program published in 1968. In the original play, the character of Lord Fancourt Babberley, an undergraduate friend of both Jack and Charley, is given the task of impersonating Charley's aunt. In the play's musical version, the characters of Charley Wykeham and "Babbs" were combined to showcase the talents of Ray Bolger.

WHERE'S CHARLEY? is a musical version of the play that for more than sixty years has been the most fabulously successful of any show in the English language, CHARLEY'S AUNT. When this farce was first presented in London in 1892, it racked up a run of no less than 1,466 performances over thee and a half years – which was then the world's record for a continuous run. But that was only the beginning, for the farce has continued to be popular through countless revivals in all parts of the English-speaking world ever since.

CHARLEY'S AUNT was written by Brandon Thomas as a special vehicle for W.S. Penley, who was more or less the Bob Hope of his time. But in addition to giving Penley a richly farcical role as a university student who masquerades as his own aunt in order to provide the then-indispensable chaperone to some visiting young ladies, Thomas, who esteemed himself as an actor, didn't overlook writing a good role for himself. This was the part of Sir Francis Chesney. Also in the original production in London was Nina Boucicault, daughter of the then-noted playwright Dion Boucicault, who played Kitty.

Following the phenomenal London run, numerous touring companies took the farce to all parts of the British Empire. The play became a sort of industry in itself. Penley, the original Charley, trained a large number of actors to play the same role in the touring companies. The Thomas family vary carefully managed the rich property that had been created by the writing of the play. When the musical comedy version called WHERE'S CHARLEY? was first planned for its Broadway production in 1948, nearly a year of careful negotiations with the original author's heirs was necessary to clear the rights. No publication of the script was permitted until 1935, and therefore the copyright (extending for 56 years) dates from that year, rather than from the year of the original production. Thus the Thomas family's heirs can look forward to a 99 year total of royalties from Brandon Thomas' writing of some 90 typewritten pages that turned out to be the all-time most popular comedy in the English language.

The first American production of CHARLEY'S AUNT was in October 1893 and a tidy run of over 200 performances was achieved, with Etienne Girardot as Charley. He returned to this role for an 80-performance revival in New York in 1906, and meanwhile toured it widely throughout the United States. Other major presentations in New York occurred in 1914, 1925, 1940 and 1953. In the last two revivals, Jose Ferrer was the rampaging Charley's aunt with enormous success.

These productions, of course, do not take account of the many more numerous productions of CHARLEY'S AUNT in stock companies, nor in the amateur theaters where it has always been a great favorite. Three American movie versions have been made. The first starred Syd Chaplin, Charlie's brother, in 1925. The 1930 version starred Charles Ruggles, and a 1941 remake had Jack Benny in the title role. After the success of WHERE'S CHARLEY? on stage, still another movie version was made, this time of the musical comedy, starring Ray Bolger. Many other famous actors have essayed the role, including Edward Everett Horton, who toured with it in 1919 long before he entered movies, and Spencer Tracy, when he was a young and not-too-well-known actor in 1925.

In England, the play has continued to be even more popular than in America. For many years there were usually as many as three companies playing simultaneously in the British Isles. After Brandon Thomas' death in 1912, Mrs. Thomas managed and directed one to three companies yearly. A so-called No. 1 Company was, until 1939, seen at every Christmas holiday season in London, but the outbreak of World War II broke that tradition. The part of Amy was played in the 1938 Christmas revival in London by Amy Brandon Thomas, a daughter of the author who had been named for the role so many audiences have found enchanting.

Playbill cover for WHERE'S CHARLEY? at Melody Top.

Playbill cover from the summer 1980 production of WHERE'S CHARLEY? at Melody Top.


Webmaster's Note

Mr. Guy S. Little, Jr., the producer and general manager at Melody Top from 1979 to 1985, told me the story of how he drove Kitty Carlisle to an afternoon tea and reunion with the legendary Lynn Fontanne at her estate, Ten Chimneys, in Genesee Depot, Wisconsin (only a 40-minute drive from Milwaukee). He sat patiently and listened to the two women talk for a long time, discussing mutual friends and events from the New York theater scene. At the end of their conversation, Lynn insisted on seeing Kitty perform in WHERE'S CHARLEY?. Guy quickly arranged for her to attend the matinee on Saturday, June 28, 1980. Because Lynn was 92 years old at the time and in fragile health, he replaced one of Melody Top's front-row chairs (made of canvas supports around a metal frame) with a cushioned one for her to use. He kept that chair at his home in Sullivan, Illinois for the rest of his life — and he never allowed anyone else to sit on it again!


WHERE'S CHARLEY? Cast of Characters and Credits

Brassett:Michael Hayward-Jones
Jack Chesney:Kevin Daly
Charley Wykeham:Eddie Mekka
Kitty Verdun:P.J. Hoffman
Amy Spettigue:Valerie Lee
Wilkinson:James Seibel
Sir Francis Chesney:Michael Sedgwick
Mr. Spettigue:Victor Raider-Wexler
Donna Lucia d'Alvadorez:Kitty Carlisle
Director:Donald Christy
Choreographer:George Bunt
Musical Director:Donald Yap
Costume Designer:Mathew John Hoffmann III
Scenery Designer:Craig M. Clipper
Lighting Designer:James R. Riggs

Ladies and Gentlemen: Ann Arvia, Mib Bramlette, Debra Dominiak, Ken Ellis, Jim Fredericks, Rudy Hogenmiller, Terry Lacy, David Larson, Nancy McCloud, Nancy Mueller, James Seibel, K. David Short, Laura Soltis, Deborah Woodhouse.

Conductor: Donald Yap; Reeds: John Hibler, Joseph Aaron, Arthur Ulichny; Brass: Norm Wegner, Phil Ruektenwald, Jeff Pietrangelo, Ken Howlett, Jeff Lemke; Keyboard: Stephen Bates; Bass: Tom McGirr; and Percussion: Roy Schneider.

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