by Lynn on July 11, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

Book by Neil Simon
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Dorothy Fields
Directed by Morris Panych
Musical Direction by Paul Sportelli
Choreography by Parker Esse
Set by Ken MacDonald
Costumes by Charlotte Dean
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Projections by Cameron Davis
Sound by John Lott
Starring: Kyle Blair
Jeremy Carver-James
Julie Martell
Melanie Phillipson
Kimberley Rampersad
Jay Turvey
Mark Uhre

Sweet Charity, a musical about an optimistic, but naïve woman, who looks for love in all the wrong places. It should be lively but this production is surprisingly flat because of the uninspired choreography.

The Story. Charity Hope Valentine is a dance hall girl. Guys come in to the dance hall and pay money to dance with the girls. Charity seems to attract the wrong kind of guy. They are either married or mooch money from her, or both. She comes close to landing a sweet man in Oscar Lindquist but he has his own issues. He’s shy, very straight-laced, and intensely claustrophobic. He says that Charity’s past life of having various men come in and out of her life doesn’t matter. Well it really does.

The Production. Sweet Charity originally opened on Broadway in 1966 and was a huge hit. It starred Gwen Verdon. It was conceived, directed and choreographed by her husband Bob Fosse. The choreography was dazzling and quintessential Fosse. It would have to be if you have one of the best dancers on Broadway in Gwen Verdon who also was the best interpreter of her husband’s work.

The Shaw Festival has its own way of producing iconic Broadway shows. In the case of Gypsy and Ragtime a few years ago, they were directed as if they were plays with music. The result was more deeply investigated.

Sweet Charity has a quirky feel to it because it’s directed by Morris Panych. As a director he knows his way around bittersweet material. He’s also an accomplished playwright and his plays have that quirky edge. So he brings out the sweetness, quirkiness and tenderness in Sweet Charity.

When we meet Charity she is in a park telling her latest scum-bag boyfriend of her plans for them. As Charity, Julie Martell is upbeat, talks a mile a minute, does not allow herself to realize her boyfriend is not good and I guess talks so fast to fill the empty space. He’s bored through it all. Combs his hair, Hides behind sunglasses but comes to life when he realizes Charity has money in her purse she’s been saving for their future. He pushes her in the water after he takes her savings.

Charity meets Oscar (Kyle Blair) in an elevator that gets stuck. He freaks. Blair plays him very seriously. To be trapped is dire for Oscar. We find it hilarious as her bangs the walls trying to get out, but there is that little jab at our common decency to feel terrible for the man. Kyle Blair plays Oscar with all sorts of ticks, neuroses and of course that gasping claustrophia. Blair shows Oscar’s determination to make this match with this sweet, naïve woman work. That it doesn’t is also heartbreaking.

As Charity, Julie Martell is more a singer-actress than a dancer, but I thought it works here. Martell captures Charity’s eternal, sad optimism.

Ken MacDonald’s sets are properly garish for this brassy world and they also have style. And Charlotte Dean’s costumes also capture that glaring, brash world.

But I had a serious problem with the choreography of Parker Esse. It is unremarkable and it results in a really flat production. I know that Bob Fosse did the original choreography and it was terrific and sexy and throbbing. Nothing says you have to recreate that choreography. We’re not talking about Jerome Robbins’s dictate that if you do his shows you have to recreate his choreography. But if you aren’t going to do Fosse’s choreography then you have to replace it with something equally as dazzling and Esse doesn’t come close.

A number called “Rich Man’s Frug” should establish a rich, bored, class of party goers that Charity meets when she is picked up by Vittorio Vidal, a suave movie star. Esse’s version is unremarkable and truncated. “The Rhythm of Life” that opens Act II should be rousing and hedonistic. Esse’s version is unfocused. And Jeremy Carver-James as Daddy Brubeck just misses that zip that’s needed to dupe people into following him. Sure those people are stoned, but still there has to be a drive to the number and it’s missing.

I love this musical and this production disappointed me mainly because of the underwhelming choreography.

Google “Rich Man’s Frug” to see the kind of choreography this production is missing.

Produced by the Shaw Festival

Run: April 17-Oct. 31, 2015
Cast: 23; 11 men, 12 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Leave a Comment

Respectful comments are accepted on this site as long as they are accompanied by a verifiable name and a verifiable e-mail address. Posts that are slanderous, libelous or personally derogatory will not be approved.