Until about 1943, the entity now known as the American musical, consisted mostly of songs, dances and occasionally, a story line. Then came Rodgers and Hammerstein and their integrated book musical, “Oklahoma.” For about the next twenty years, most American musicals followed the pattern of having a clear story into which the singing and dancing were seamlessly blended. (Think “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Carousel,” “My Fair Lady.”)
In the mid-sixties, experimental type musicals such as “Hair” started to emerge. This followed the age-old tenet that the arts represent the era from which they come. In other words, as U.S. society started to question traditions, this was reflected in the changing form and content of theatre.
“Sweet Charity,” with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and book by Neil Simon, a version of which is now on stage at the Shaw Festival, is loosely based on Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” which placed the spotlight on Italian streetwalkers. The Fellini film centered on the ups-and-downs of an ever hopeful prostitute.
“Sweet Charity” centers on Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer in a New York dance hall. A brassy but sweet young lady, she, as the Fellini lead character, has a goal. Charity yearns for one thing—romantic love which will result in true happiness. The format of the musical harks back to the traditional book musical.
Hers is a story of a journey that is sad and unhappily hopeless as she searches, but fails to find her true self. And, as was the case in “Nights of Cabiria,” Charity gets caught up in the merry-go-round of life and can’t get off.
As the story unfolds, Charity meets Oscar, a shy moralist. She believes her luck has changed, but (spoiler alert) when he finds out about her job and her past, things turn sour. But Charity, true to her persona, stays hopeful that someday her yearnings will materialize.
Bob Fosse, who directed the 1966 production of “Sweet Charity” on Broadway, was an energetic, dynamic choreographer, with a creative style of dance filled with jazz hands (elbows locked in place, fingers wiggling quickly with the hands tilted out to the sides and the wrists not moving), bent knees, turned out feet and slanted bodies, and edgy moves. The effect is the creation of a dynamic tension, a ready to explode attitude. The music is hard and driving, the angst obvious, adding up in clear picture of tension and frustration.
It is in regard to the Fosse stamp on the show that the Shaw production falters. Director Morris Panych and choreographer Parker Esse fail to develop the needed edginess, the New York attitude of fast-paced and driving attitude, that the script requires.
The show is not blunt enough. Adding a few “Nu Yawk” sounds does not a New Yorker make. The script is filled with pizzazz, in your face language, jazzy musical sounds of brass and sass, lyrics that create clear attitudinal pictures of the characters. The line interpretations and choreography fail to invoke the needed tension.
The score is outstanding, filled with memorable tunes including “You Should See Yourself,” ”Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” and “I’m the Bravest Individual.”
The music, as written, fits Fosse’s energetic and creative style is too languid performed under the direction of Paul Sportelli.
Panych is not alone in not interpreting American musicals as intended. Just as American directors and actors have trouble with British and Canadian farces, Canadian directors often don’t add the needed edge to many below-the-border musicals.
Adorable Julie Martell tries hard as Charity. She has a nice singing voice and an acceptable stage presence. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the needed chutzpa. She blanches in comparison to Gwenn Verdon and Shirley MacLaine who played the role on Broadway and in the film version. It’s like seeing Julie Andrews playing Mamma Rose in “Gypsy” instead of Ethel Merman.
Kyle Blair is on target as the shy Oscar Lindquist. His “caught in an elevator” scene with Martell is absolutely delightful. Farce at its finest.
Melanie Phillipson (Helene) and Kimberley Rampersad (Nickie) do a nice job of attempting to create two of the dance hall trollops, but, as with Martell, they lack the sass.
Charlotte Dean’s costumes and Ken MacDonald’s set designs work well.
Capsule judgement: Most of the audience, who may be unaware of the style of Bob Fosse, of the brash New York attitude needed for shows like “Sweet Charity” and “Guys and Dolls,” will probably find the Shaw production a source of entertainment. For those in the “know,” the production is just too nice, too bland, lacking in “cheek.”
What: “Sweet Charity”
Where: Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre
When: April 17-October 31, 2015
For tickets or information: 1-800-5111-Shaw or http://www.shawfest.com/