The days are getting darker, the weather is getting chillier, and everything seems a bit more miserable than usual right now. But lucky for you, Catholic University’s Benjamin T. Rome School of Music has a cure in Sweet Charity, an absolutely delightful production of an absolutely delightful musical.
With a book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, the original production of Sweet Charity took Broadway by storm. This was in no small part due to choreography and direction by the legendary Bob Fosse, and Fosse’s fingerprints are all over CUA’s production. The musical follows Charity Hope Valentine, a naïve and outgoing dance hall hostess who continually finds herself falling in love with the wrong men.
Set Designer JD Madsen and Lighting Designer Catherine Girardi have put together something special for this one. The stage is backed by vintage marquee signs hung on screens showing the Statue of Liberty and other recognizable New York icons. It’s overloaded, and feels a lot like a cross between Times Square and Broadway. But that’s before the set really kicks into gear, the screens animating, the lights going on and off, and before you know it there’s been a set change without anything moving on or off the stage. For the seedy Fandango Ballroom, burnt out letters are the order of the day, backed by images of money; Coney Island is pictures of the Wonder Wheel, with the lights brightening in sequence across the stage. All of this is supported by a pop-art sensibility that gives a unique visual edge. The images are reminiscent of Warhol and Lichtenstein; the placement of the signs is pure Mondrian. The technical stuff is worth the price of admission on its own.
And then there’s Charity, sweet Charity. From the moment Kelly Craige dances her way onto the stage, it’s clear that the audience is in for something special. I’m a little afraid of overusing the word “delightful” in this review, but that’s what Craige is: absolutely delightful. The fact that she can sing and dance goes almost without saying, but the most impressive thing is how much weight Craige gives to the dramatic aspects of the character. In the Director’s Notes, Jay Brock argues that Sweet Charity‘s heart lies in the fact that Neil Simon wrote a book that would stand perfectly well on its own as a straight play. It’s clear that Brock and Craige have spent a lot of time developing Charity’s character. She’s brash, charming, funny, and a fascinating combination of innocent and world-weary. Craige gives us a Charity that is self-aware enough to know she talks too much, but not enough to realize that she shouldn’t be saying that just now. Aware enough to know she has a problem with men, and then fall for another one. It’s easy to see why people fall for her, and easy to see why she ends up at the mercy of the fickle finger of fate.
The trick in a show like this is whether the rest of the cast can keep up with the star, and I’m happy to report that they do. From the moment the girls of the Fandango Ballroom (Erica Clare, Nicki Elledge, Sarah Frances Williams, Mackenzie Newbury, Kerry Bremmer, and Julie Britt) slink into position for “Big Spender,” the ensemble handles both the big song-and-dance numbers and small dramatic scenes with aplomb. As Charity’s best friends Helene, Nickie, Clare, and Elledge certainly earn their extra stage time, with their teasing and comforting feeling equally authentic. The great singing voices don’t hurt either, and I found myself wishing the three girls had even more songs together. Luke Garrison’s movie star Vittorio Vidal (hold the first “o”, roll the “r”, and then hold the “a” for full effect) is both entertainingly cheesy, and affectingly human. Although he’s gone by the intermission, Vittorio is one of the building blocks of the play; it’s his sense of Charity’s worth that helps the audience fully get behind her as a person.
While he’s a boost for Charity, Vittorio is a stumbling block for Oscar Lindquist, Charity’s main love interest. Bobby Gallagher excels as the nebbishy Lindquist, managing to be charmingly overwhelmed without hitting pathetic. But it’s a struggle for Lindquist to understand Charity’s strengths and flaws in the same way that Vittorio seems to do in one night. Maybe Garrison needed to play Vittorio as a little more self-centered, but it takes a while to stop wishing that he would just come to his senses and swoop in to save the day.
Let’s talk about some of the musical numbers. “Big Spender” is Sweet Charity‘s most famous song, and from the moment it makes its appearance in the overture it’s clear that it’s going to receive the requisite “oomph” from the cast and orchestra (conducted with aplomb by Kyle English). It’s not often that I find myself wishing a piece were reprised more often during a musical. “The Rich Man’s Frug” is another standout, especially the first movement (“The Aloof”) as it showcases both the cast’s talents and the production’s artistic heritage. It’s everything Fosse (choreographer Sally Boyett D’Angelo nails the precise motions and awkward postures) but there’s also a heavy dose of Warhol in the costuming.
The show has a few minor weaknesses. Director Brock lets the stage picture get muddy during the bigger non-musical scenes, and it can be hard to hear all the un-micced actors when the stage gets crowded. Slightly more problematic is the “The Rythym of Life,” a toothless, tie-dyed, fake-pot-filled spectacle that makes me wonder if anyone involved in the production had ever seen a real hippy. But that’s mostly the fault of a play that doesn’t give younger performers a lot of context for that particular scene.
The strength of CUA’s Sweet Charity is that a second ago I was telling you that a song felt silly and unnecessary, and now I’m going to tell you that it’s still an incredible song (my favorite in the play) and it was performed excellently. And that’s the worst thing I can say about it. Maybe it’s the rose-colored glasses talking, but Sweet Charity is everything you could look for in a piece of musical theatre. There’s only one performance left today at 2 PM, and you should do everything in your power to make it.
Running Time: two and a half hours long, with one fifteen minute intermission.
Sweet Charity has one more performance today at 2 PM at The Catholic University of America’s Hartke Theatre – 3801 Harewood Road, N.E. in Washington, D.C. For tickets, purchase them online or at the box office.