Charity Hope Valentine, the title character of Sweet Charity, is one of musical comedy's most endearing heroines. A taxi dancer who believes in love even though she's been left more times than she can remember, Charity's full of spunk, optimism and an unquenchable life force. Based on Fellini's screenplay for Nights of Cabiria and created by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields in the mid-'60s, the musical tale makes for a very happy night at the theater, especially with the effervescent production now being offered by Theater Under The Stars at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Wearing a tight dress and a beaming smile, Charity (Paige Davis of Trading Spaces fame) strolls into the story one sunny afternoon alongside her current beau. The cad is married, but that doesn't stop Charity from believing in her own future nuptials. Even after he dumps her in the park and makes off with her pocketbook full of cash, Charity can't stop dreaming.
Back at the Fandango Dance Hall, where she makes her living dancing with strangers, her workmates just roll their eyes at her endless cheer. They've heard it all before, and they know how the story goes. Charity inevitably gets her heart broken until she meets a claustrophobic accountant named Oscar Lindquist (Guy Adkins) in an elevator one evening. The fact that he's obsessed with purity doesn't stop him from falling hard for the lady in red. Of course, he's got no idea that the good-natured girl who helps him get over his phobia while they're trapped in the elevator of the 92nd Street Y has such a tainted past. It takes all of Act II to find out how he'll react to the truth.
This narrative hook might sound about as hackneyed as it gets, but in many ways Simon's thin (and oddly unfocused) story is nothing more than a frame for some of musical comedy's most memorable tunes, made even more wonderful by terrific dancing. As choreographed by Wayne Cilento, the familiar "Big Spender" is a slow, saucy grind featuring all the hot dames at the Fandango. Bob Fosse directed and choreographed the original Broadway production, and his influence is felt all through this new version. Deliciously oozy, the dancers slide through all sorts of hip-twisting moves. And their hands are fabulously expressive.
Without a doubt, though, one of the most visually spectacular pieces happens during "Rich Man's Frug," a dance number at a little bar called The Pompeii Club, where Charity meets a movie star one night. The scene is utterly unnecessary in terms of our heroine's bad-luck saga of love, but it does make way for a scintillating send-up of the '60s, with its glossy girls dressed up miniskirts and purple hair, its über-cool dancers (one even moves with a cigarette dangling from his lips) and all that wild and wonderful choreography. The mixture of pop, modern and jazz moves is thrilling.
Making all this choreography so fabulous is director Scott Faris's gleaming cast. As accountant Oscar, Adkins is a scream. The scene in which he finds himself trapped in the elevator is a kinesthetic wonder. He literally crawls the walls at one point. And he is sweetly engaging, with a beautifully romantic singing voice that makes his tender attentions charming. No wonder Charity falls for this buttoned-up nerd.
Adding a wickedly sexy charge to the chemistry are Charity's dance-hall mates, Nickie and Helene, played by Bridget Berger and Kisha Howard, respectively. These pals glow with erotic electricity and sneering, been-there-done-that cynicism. And the two can really dance.
Of course, the heart of the show is Charity. And while Davis's performance has neither the depth nor the power of the others, she does make a convincing optimist. Forever seeing the sunny side of even the worst situation, she beams through numbers like "If My Friends Could See Me Now." And she makes a compelling comedian throughout. At one point, Charity gets trapped in a movie star's closet (again, there's no narrative point to this scene, but it's fun to watch), and Davis is hysterical as a girl caught in a compromising situation.
Taken all together, the elements of this story don't always fit into the most logical of stories, but that doesn't stop the show from being engaging. It's enough to make anyone feel rosy about the world.
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