Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Scott's review of Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations
Sweet Charity is based on the original screenplay for the film Nights of Cabiria, by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. It tells the story of a perpetually down-on-her luck dance hall hostess who has had a string of bad relationships. Charity has a heart of gold, and when she finally meets a nice guy named Oscar, her dreams of getting out of her seedy life finally appear to be within her reach. The show debuted on Broadway in 1966, and has had a few New York revivals over the years.
The book for the musical is by playwright Neil Simon. Simon created characters that are wildly imperfect but still lovable. The story introduces audiences to a number of unique groups of eccentric people in 1960s New York, and there is effective humor and insight about the human condition. However, for a show about hopes and dreams, it's unfortunate that the ending is not what audiences are rooting for.
The score by Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) is one of the better ones from the period. Coleman put his jazz background to great use in several numbers, and many of the songs are standards today. The praiseworthy lyrics by Fields likewise are quite memorable, expressing the longings of people (especially women) yearning for something better. Songs such as "Big Spender," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," "Where Am I Going?," and "I'm a Brass Band" are Broadway showtune royalty.
The production at WSU is unique in that it uses the concept that this is the final dress rehearsal of the show during the 1960s. Director Marya Spring Cordes has the invisible audience witness the preshow sound and lighting checks, dancer warmups, last minute wardrobe fittings, and encouragement from the director and choreographer–all with 1960s slang. During the cast huddle before the show, we learn that the primary set pieces are delayed and will arrive in time for the first performance. The presentation of this additional perspective doesn't feel particularly necessary, but it doesn't impair the impact of the actual show significantly (though having the "choreographer" come out to shadow Charity during one of her big dances is a bit distracting). Cordes provides a strong staging of the actual show, with believable character interactions and a solid balance of hope and hopelessness in tone and characterizations. The blocking and stagecraft are likewise admirable, though the scene transitions and pace were a bit off during the first few scenes at the performance I attended.
The original Sweet Charity was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. While Brandon Kelly serves as choreographer for this production, he borrows liberally from Fosse, especially in "Rich Man's Frug" and "Big Spender." While recreating those dances is a good idea, Fosse should be credited in the program appropriately. Kelly's remaining dances employ Fosse-like moves and are visually pleasing. F. Wade Russo leads a great-sounding five-piece orchestra.
Much of the show's success is on the shoulders of the actress playing Charity, and Tassy Kirbas certainly impresses. She brings the requisite sassy, perky, and kooky personality to the character, creating a firm foundation for the cast and material. Kirbas provides an endearing and fully committed performance, dances up a storm, and supplies apt vocals in her many songs. Mitchell Lewis garners lots of laughs as the neurotic love interest Oscar, and he does so without going over the top, which is commendable. Maggie Musco (Nicole) and Chap Hollin (Helene, in an example of gender-bending casting) provide stalwart support as Charity's two best friends from the dance hall, and they shine in several numbers. Nick Salazar is deliciously melodramatic as Vittorio Vidal, rightfully an audience favorite. The cast overall does a great job with the many challenging dances, and it's great to see an ensemble representing a cross section of looks.
With the concept of not having the primary backdrops and the audience seeing the backstage preparations, the stage is basically a bare one except for the orchestra and pit singers on the back wall. The set pieces by Zoe Still that are brought onstage are black and white renderings of the various locales and are attractive and well utilized. Still also provides the costumes, which are generally attractive and capture the basic aesthetic of the period but are a bit uneven in specific elements. The lighting by Matthew P. Benjamin incorporates various 1960s era shapes, along with other effects, to good use.
For those familiar with Sweet Charity, Wright State University's creative approach to presenting the musical is likely to add to the experience. However, theatergoers new to the musical may be confused at first by the show within a show concept, especially since the actual material is strong enough to stand on its own. The classic Broadway score, Fosse dances, and a very capable and talented cast make this production one to remember.
Sweet Charity runs through April 3, 2022, at WSU, Festival Playhouse, Creative Arts Center, 3640 Colonel Glenn Hwy., Dayton OH. For tickets and information, call 937-775-2500 or visit wrightliberalarts.universitytickets.com/w/.