‘Sweet Charity’ is impressive, exceeds all expectations
Posted: October 6, 2012
Special to The Winchester Star
Winchester — “Sweet Charity,” first produced in 1966, is a big dance and song production.
The show premiered under the direction and choreography of the popular and renowned Bob Fosse with book by Neil Simon, lyrics by Dorothy Fields and music by Cy Coleman.
With so many noted theater people working on one project, the show was bound to be a hit. A hit it was — with 12 Tony nominations — and the production has had numerous revivals.
Shenandoah University’s offering of “Sweet Charity” this weekend is directed by Carolyn Coulson-Grigsby. Her interpretation exceeds all expectations of a 46-year-old show with a plot that is not very deep.
Musical director Thomas Albert is, as ever, brilliant with his baton.
Kudos to the production staff. Scenic designer Kristen Martino creates an Art Deco kind of New York City skyline and angular set pieces that harmonize with her background. A large cartoon balloon cutout (think of a comic-strip character having an epiphany) with only a word or two is a clever way to introduce scenes and make side comments to the audience.
Costume designer Jennifer Flitton Adams puts on a fashion show for the big dance numbers. Lighting designer Tom Gillette’s stark colors and shadows enhance the stylized Fosse jazz movements.
The combined choreography of Coulson-Grigsby, Alan Arnett and Jeremy Ward channels Fosse’s distinctive jazz style remarkably well — his sensual isolated movements that sometimes mean only a turned head or a flipped hand or splayed fingers.
Two names get star billing in this musical: Charity Hope Valentine and Catherine Kay, who portrays Charity.
Kay is as good a performer as has ever appeared on Shenandoah’s stage. Her voice was flawless, she dances well, and her acting range shows both the bubbly and vulnerable sides of her character of Charity.
Then there is Charity Hope Valentine, the main character, whose name is equivalent to the plot. Charity is a dance hall “hostess,” a dead-end job dancing with and entertaining lonely men for money.
She gives and gives and gives — her heart, her money, and her time as she hopes for a happily-ever-after life with true love, her own valentine. She even has a heart tattoo on her arm — wearing her heart on her sleeve, perhaps.
Charity has a knack for choosing the wrong man time after time. One of her dance hall friends tells her that she “runs her heart like a hotel — one checking in and another checking out.”
The first of Charity’s men the audience meets is Charlie. Portrayed by Bryce Wagne, he is married — although Charity has been meeting all his expenses. He steals her money and, literally and figuratively, dumps her in a Central Park pond just when she has talked herself into believing that he is about to propose. Exit Charlie.
Then an encounter with an Italian screen star, Vittorio Vidal, leaves Charity jilted once again when Vittorio returns to his former girlfriend. The role of Vidal, with a creditable accent and good stage business, is brought to life by Nigel Huckle.
During her evening with Vittorio, Charity sings “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” The song requires a great voice and comedic acting ability, because part of the song takes place while Charity is hidden in Vittorio’s closet when his girlfriend returns. Exit Vittorio.
Bouncing back yet again, Charity hopes her luck is changing when she meets Oscar Lindquist at the 92nd Street Y, an enterprise still known for its vast public offerings of classes and lectures. Stuck together in a malfunctioning elevator, the two decide they may have made a connection.
Oscar, played by Brandon Shapiro, captures the audience with his voice and his transformation from shy nerd to a more self-confident man.
Oscar proposes. Charity can leave her dance hall job. All the dance hall employees throw her a farewell party. In the end, though, in an almost sitcom style, Oscar decides that although he loves his “sweet” Charity, he will forever worry about her past. Reluctantly, he, too, leaves her. Exit Oscar.
The cartoon balloon sign then reads “she lives” . . . “hopefully”. . . “ever after.”
Along with the amazing talent of Catherine Kay, the ensemble does credit to the choreography and big production numbers. This show is well-cast. The “Rich Man’s Frug” dance number and “Big Spender” (in which the dance hall girls line up behind a railing to entice the men to choose them for a dance or two) are particularly impressive.
Charity and Oscar’s visit to the Rhythm of Life Church — an “open-air” church under the Manhattan Bridge — is another large production number. Although “Rhythm of Life” is dated (think “Hair”), the movements of each of the ensemble as various church members is mesmerizing. The many characters are all crowded together, but costume and staging transform them into individuals not seen since a San Francisco love-in in the late 1960s.
Two other stand-out cast members are Charity’s best friends at the FanDango dance hall. Nickie (Christie Farrell) and Helene (Michelle Sauers) are featured with Charity in “Big Spender,” “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” and a duet of “Baby Dream Your Dream.” Both are comfortable on stage, which helps the audience relate to their characters. Both have good voices and dance moves that give them personality.
The downside to this production of “Sweet Charity” is that it runs only this weekend at the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre at SU.
Since this is Homecoming weekend at the university, call for tickets now. Note, as well, that this not a show appropriate for young children.
“Sweet Charity” is impressive. Director Carolyn Coulson-Grigsby, her production staff and cast deserve much applause.
Performances of “Sweet Charity” will continue at 2:30 and 8 p.m. today and 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the Ohrstrom-Bryant Theatre. Call 540-665-4569.