Monday, August 24, 2015

Sweet Charity: Manhattan Waif

Julie Martell (centre) with the cast of Sweet Charity, at Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival. (Photo by David Cooper)

The 1966 musical Sweet Charity is built around a debased modern version of a fairy-tale heroine, an eternally optimistic New York taxi dancer who falls for men who invariably let her down. The book, which Neil Simon based on the great Fellini movie Nights of Cabiria, employs the Manhattan setting to localize Charity’s story, just as Fellini made use of Rome; one episode, where Charity, in the right place at the right time, finds herself on an improbable date with a dishy Italian superstar who’s just quarreled with his paramour, is straight out of the film. But Simon and the songwriters, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, and the director-choreographer, Bob Fosse – who conceived the project as a vehicle for his frequent muse and one-time wife Gwen Verdon, a magnificent show dancer with an endearing cracked voice full of burgundy bubbles – softened the narrative. Cabiria (played, unforgettably, by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina), is a hooker who pictures herself living out the last act of a romance; the first man who treats her like a lady, Oscar (François Périer), turns out to be a thief who swindles her out of her life savings. (One of Fellini’s coups is the way he uses a pair of props, a cigarette and a pair of shades, to suggest a sinister side to Oscar moments before Cabiria intuits his true intentions.) In the musical, Oscar is a timid, earnest fellow Charity connects with when they’re trapped in an elevator together; their courtship takes them all over the city, including a hippie church and Coney Island).

The show has a good score: two of the songs, “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” were moderate take-away hits, and Barbra Streisand made a brilliant recording of Charity’s self-examining second-act number, “Where Am I Going?” And the dances, which Fosse recreated in an otherwise unsuccessful 1969 film adaptation starring Shirley MacLaine (who was underequipped for its terpsichorean demands), were stupendous. The problem has always been the script, with its wavering tone. Simon wants it to be hard-boiled, like John O’Hara’s book for Pal Joey or Arthur Laurents’s for Gypsy, but in his depiction of the callous, self-interested New Yorkers who crop up in the group scenes – when the first guy we see with Charity dumps her in Central Park Lake while he absconds with her cash, and when she passes out from hunger at the disco the Italian movie star, Vittorio Vidal, escorts her to – he confuses hard-boiled with mean-spirited. And if you’re going to change the heroine from a whore to a dance-hall hostess and give her a good-hearted swain, then it’s a mistake to give her an unhappy ending. Oscar gets stuck on his image of Charity as pure and though he says he can live with the fact that she’s worked in a low-rent ballroom rather than as a bank teller (the story she made up for him), at the eleventh hour he reveals that he can’t live with her sexual history. The conclusion is a bummer – and it’s not convincing. It feels like a concession, as if Simon and Fosse thought that it was OK to change the profession of Fellini’s most original creation but that it would be a betrayal of the source material to let her live happily ever after. Sweet Charity, for all its virtues, proves that you can’t have it both ways.

Kyle Blair as Oscar Lindquist and Julie Martell as Charity Valentine in Sweet Charity. (Photo by Emily Cooper)

Morris Panych’s production of the musical for the Shaw Festival doesn’t have much feeling for the milieu, even though the emblem of Ken MacDonald’s design is the New York subway system: the stage floor is painted with the letters of various trains, and the cages inhabited by Charity (Julie Martell) and her fellow taxi dancers at the Fandango Ballroom, and the grid above them where their ornery boss, Herman (Jay Turvey), hovers, are scaffolding borrowed from the scenes set in various subway stations. Nor does it have much feeling for the corrupted fairy-tale structure – or, oddly, for Charity herself. The character is written as so ingenuous and generous and touching that, like the other characters, we fall in love with her. Though she’s merely a stop-gap for Vittorio (Mark Uhre) and a way for him to make his girl friend (Jacqueline Thair) jealous, he’s genuinely taken with her unassuming and kind-hearted nature, and Oscar (Kyle Blair) is enchanted with her. But though Martell is forceful enough to hold the stage, and her performance of the songs and dances is proficient, she isn’t lovable; he isn’t even distinctive. Nor is Parker Esse’s choreography, even for the dances that generally light up even otherwise dull versions of this show, the disco number “Rich Man’s Frug” and the “Rhythm of Life” revival-meeting number at the top of act two, here featuring an uncharismatic Jeremy Carver-James as the R&B preacher, Daddy Brubeck. Except for the movie-credits opening (Cameron Davis designed the projections), none of the visual elements in the Shaw Sweet Charity is particularly pleasing. Charlotte Dean’s costumes go overboard in burlesquing the characters, and though the way MacDonald’s set works is clever, even ingenious, the utilitarian subway structures are visually assaultive when he moves them into the Fandango. (You wouldn’t make Chicago or Cabaret look this ugly.)

The production isn’t terrible, just mediocre. But three of the performers make it worth watching. Blair gets Oscar’s awkward charm, his weird balance of timidity and assertiveness, reticence and intensity; his duet with Martell, “I’m the Bravest Individual,” in the stuck elevator – where she tries to calm his claustrophobic panic – and his serenade to her (the title song) are the high points of the show. Blair works diligently to make the conclusion of the story make sense: when Oscar shows up at the impromptu surprise party Charity’s co-workers throw her at the ballroom to celebrate her engagement, his discomfort with their vulgarity and the chumminess and physical proximity of the regular clients who are among the guests is palpable. (It’s not Blair’s fault that the transition still feels forced.) Mark Uhre has a lot of fun with the part of the Mastroianni-like Italian hunk, which is different from anything else I’ve seen him do. And though Melanie Phillipson keeps Helene, one of Charity’s two Fandango buddies, pretty much on the level of caricature, as the other one, Nickie, Kimberley Rampersad – who has a velvety R&B voice – adds some emotional grace notes. There’s a tender throwaway moment when she watches Charity go off with Oscar to what Charity assumes will be wedded bliss: it’s just a glance, but the look of anxiety on Rampersad’s face suggests that she senses this romance isn’t going to end well. I caught a couple of other moments like this one in her performance; she makes Nickie into a three-dimensional character. This is Rampersad’s first season with the Shaw, and I hope she’ll be back.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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