The Shaw Festival started producing American musicals a few years ago and they’ve really taken off with audiences. This season it was Sweet Charity (1966), which isn’t from Shaw’s lifetime, isn’t by one of his contemporaries, and expresses a far more sentimental and pathetic view about female sexual exploitation than Shaw’s pragmatic, capitalist-centric Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1893). Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), on which the musical was based, also does not meet any of the provisions for the expanded Shaw Festival mandate. So, why was it produced beyond being a bittersweet but charming show offering a number of good roles to women and half a dozen excellent songs – that’s a lot for any show that wasn’t written by Rodgers & Hammerstein?
|Ken MacDonald's Set Design|
|The Set Comes to Life*|
Director Morris Panych possesses an inimitable, witty style that meshes with set designer and frequent collaborator Ken MacDonald’s clean Mondrian lines and forward thinking theatrical technology for visually arresting productions. That was immediate with the screen on which the credits appeared as if they were stops on a subway map. Screens were utilized continually for projections that complemented the major set piece, which could be used as turnstiles in a subway station, a subway train with lights flashing by, underneath a boardwalk, and the two-story dance hall where Charity is employed. It was a show that never stopped moving and looked at times as if it were a three dimensional movie. The playbill cover showing Robert Rauschenberg’s Estate (1963) worked as a simile for the production’s energy.
|Julie Martell and Mark Uhre*|
Panych’s interpretation pushed the lead characters into a darker zone than earlier incarnations. Julie Martell projected a tough quality with a close to middle age resignation that pulled Charity out of the relentless naïveté Shirley MacLaine offered in the movie version. I said to Neil at the intermission that I’d wondered what Bette Midler would be like in the role in her prime and Martell answered that.
|Oscar and Charity*|
Kyle Blair’s Oscar isn’t just a neurotic but decent square; in this version, he’s borderline psychotic. Charity gets pulled in by Oscar, rather than the other way around, but the emotional and physical dumping didn’t work at the end. It seemed like a cheap gag that Charity should have seen coming even though it’s supposed to refer to the first scene. I wish Panych had dropped it. Even though it has a sharp, funny book by Neil Simon, it’s not an unimpeachable classic because the tension between the sweet and the tough doesn’t resolve itself.
|Phillipson, Martel and Rampersad*|
Ensemble veterans Melanie Phillipson and Mark Uhre shone as Charity’s friend Helene and Italian film star Vittorio Vidal, respectively. He brought some of Mastroianni’s world-weariness to “Too Many Tomorrows”, but also a sense of delight in discovering the diamond in the rough Charity. Kimberley Rampersad has the elegant line, dance ability, and singing power of a star as Nickie. I hope she’s cast as a lead in the near future because I could barely take my eyes off her when she was on stage. The high points were when Charity, Nickie, and Helene performed “There’s Gotta Be Something Better” in the first act and the poignant “Baby, Dream Your Dream” duet by Nickie and Helene in the second. It’s a great Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields score, which employs only one reprise unlike other musicals of its era that repeated songs constantly, in which every number is a winner. That’s probably the reason it was revived.
|Charlotte Dean's Costumes*|
The cast was certainly up for seeming like authentic New Yorkers of the mid-1960s and they sang the score very well. Charlotte Dean’s costumes were both gorgeous and shabby, though the high point for me were the raincoats the cast wore
|Subway by George Tooker|
in the subway, which looked like George Tooker’s painting Subway (1950), thereby blending in some paranoia with the musical joy. I was concerned about the men’s (obvious) wigs falling off in the “Rich Man’s Frug” number, but Neil said that type of hairstyle looked fake back then. The choreography or its execution could have been sharper during that number, though Parker Esse nailed the hippie movement in “The Rhythm of Life,” where Jeremy Carver-James seemed more at home leading the service than Sammy Davis, Jr., did in the movie.
|Jeremy Carver-Jones and "The Rhythm of Life"*|
*Photos by Emily Cooper for ShawFest
Sweet Charity runs through October 31