Downtown Cabaret Theatre, Bridgeport
The beat never falters as the revival of “Sweet Charity” unfolds at Downtown Cabaret Theatre. Under Scott Thompson’s facile direction, gifted performers dance their hearts out, with never a false move, as numbers pile on numbers. “Sweet Charity” is essentially a slight tale that links together a series of dance routines—but what delicious dance routines!
Slight though the story is, “Sweet Charity” has the stamp of the professional—not surprising, considering its creators. The original show, which opened in 1966, was shaped by Broadway pros who knew what they were doing--Bob Fosse (choreographer/director), Neil Simon (book), Cy Coleman (music), and Dorothy Fields (lyrics). And the fabulous Gwen Verdon gave the show a special luster.
The story of Charity Hope Valentine—yes, there is a story—is that of a dance hall hostess who is inevitably treated badly by each succeeding lover. But, as her middle name indicates, she never gives up hope that the right man will appear. She finally finds him when the two are trapped in an elevator. But Mr. Right, a nerdy but nice young man, wavers as he considers her history. Meanwhile, Charity goes on working at the seedy Fandango Ballroom.
So much for background. But what of this particular production? Thompson stays faithful to the Fosse mood and the Fosse choreography. The number “Big Spender,” in which the dancers hang over the rail and lure customers into the club is the very essence of Fosse. Yet Thompson puts his own stamp on the proceedings, giving a fresh quality to a ‘60s show. The result is excitement with every number.
Thompson has recruited a solid cast, with strong players in feature roles. Leslie Stevens, in the title role, has the winsome face that calls to mind a young Shirley MacLaine, and has a fine sense of comic timing. She also holds her own in the song-and-dance department. If only she brought more vulnerability, more waiflike quality, to the role! Yet her incarceration in Vittorio’s closet is hilarious, and her rendering of the show’s famous “If My Friends Could See Me Now” is memorable. As to others, Natalie Nucci and Ellen Harvey are excellent as Charity’s dance-hall buddies, and their duet “Baby, Dream Your Dream” is another vocal highlight. James Strauss is endearing as the prospective husband, as is Michael Dionissiou as the celebrity Vittorio. Charl E. Brown appears in only one number, as a leader of a New Age religious group, but his explosive personality dominates the scene.
A final word about “Sweet Charity.” The libretto, with Charity’s problems, indeed, seems trivial when placed next to “West Side Story” or “Cabaret.” And dated. In these times, would a woman be tainted because she had had earlier love affairs? Would she be rejected by a prospective husband? Not in today’s world—except, of course, among certain religious sects. Essentially, “Sweet Charity” is a showcase piece, just one step above a revue. But this fine professional production at Downtown Cabaret makes the most of its material.
Bring your drinks, your supper, and enjoy the show!
-- Irene Backalenick
Sept. 7, 2004