Sweet Charity – Shaw 2015

Those Crazy Sixties

Sweet Charity is the story of a dance hall girl living a rough life but remaining thoroughly optimistic.  The Shaw Festival’s production, now on stage at the Festival theatre, is well cast and they make it a very entertaining evening.

Charity earns her living at a sleazy dance hall, where she and other young women are paid commission to dance with the male patrons.  Despite this meager existence, Charity remains certain that the right boyfriend will come along, marry her, and take her away from all this.  But her many boyfriends are a line-up of losers.

Julie Martell as Charity Valentine with the cast of Sweet Charity.
Julie Martell as Charity Valentine with the cast of Sweet Charity.

Julie Martell capably handles the role of Charity.  The two male leads are excellent:  Kyle Blair is perfect as Oscar, the neurotic nerd, while Mark Uhre is outstanding as Vittorio, the Italian movie star.  Nearly stealing the show are Charity’s sidekicks, both fellow dance hall girls.  Melanie Phillipson as Helene and Kimberley Rampersad as Nickie have outstanding stage presence.

The score for Sweet Charity includes some songs that will be familiar to theatre-goers.  Lyricist Dorothy Fields was ahead of her time with songs like the sexy Hey, Big Spender, featuring a very energetic ensemble, or the feisty There’s Gotta be Something Better Than This, where Rampersad, Phillipson and Martell excel.

While the dancing in this show is superior, the choreography will be a little disappointing to anyone expecting to see the famous Fosse moves usually associated with Sweet Charity.  Bob Fosse directed and choreographed the original Broadway production in 1966, which received several Tony nominations.  However, the only win was for choreography, full of the trademark Fosse movement.  I was hoping to see some of those elbows behind the backs with the familiar Fosse wrist flicks.

As well, I do have concerns about the story itself.  Maybe it all made sense in 1966, but today the premise makes me cringe: first for its lack of believability, and secondly because it seems to mock Charity’s niceness.  If this is supposed to be the mid-sixties, then very few dance halls still existed with “taxi girls” paid to dance with male customers.   Such pay-per-dance places faded away in the 1940s.  The hippies demonstrate the up-to-date side of the sixties, but by then the concept of pay-per-dance would have been long gone.  It seems as if the girls should have been prostitutes, but the writers didn’t have the nerve to say that.  It took 25 more years for Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman to make it okay for a hooker to have a boyfriend.

And finally, the most jarring part of the story – Oscar is an irrational geek.  Charity is a nice girl; the best he could ever hope for.  It’s disgusting and unbelievable that he rejects Charity because she’s had previous boyfriends. You hope he comes to his senses – maybe we need a Sweet Charity sequel.

Sweet Charity continues in repertoire at The Shaw Festival, Niagara on the Lake until October 31.  For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com or call 1-800-511-7429.

Photo: Julie Martell as Charity Valentine with the cast of Sweet Charity. Photo by David Cooper.

Sweet Charity
Book by Neil Simon
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Dorothy Fields
Directed by Morris Panych
Choreography by Parker Esse
Musical Direction by Paul Sportelli
Performed by Julie Martell, Kyle Blair, Melanie Phillipson, Kimberley Rampersad, Jeremy Carver-James, Jacqueline Thair, Jay Turvey, Mark Uhre and ensemble.
Produced by The Shaw Festival
Shaw Festival Theatre, Niagara on the Lake
April 17 to October 31, 2015
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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