On a sunny yet crisp Saturday afternoon in Niagara on the Lake, the Shaw Festival's Sweet Charity and its energetic star, Julie Martell, (Charity Hope Valentine), who belts out six songs, earned a standing ovation from the appreciative audience. Martell is centre stage in the program and exudes energy throughout the entire musical.
Long-legged Melanie Phillipson (Helene) and similarly-endowed Kimberley Rampersad (Nickie) frame the diminutive Martell for many song and dance numbers choreographed by Parker Esse, and Musical Director Paul Sportelli's excellent orchestra provides the musical get-up-and-go. Big Spender in Act One and The Rhythm of Life in Act Two keep us bouncing in our seats and Jeremy Carver-James as Daddy Brubeck in the latter tune is a wonderful mix of Rev. Jim Jones and Jimi Hendrix, the ensemble dressed in Charlotte Dean's eclectic hippie attire.
Kyle Blair's anxiety-prone Oscar Lindquist as Martell's would-be beau is remarkable - both stuck in an elevator and on a Coney Island ride frozen high up in the air. The sudden dénouement involving the two drew audible gasps from the crowd.
Charity is a New York City taxi dancer in the Fandango Ballroom, pleasing customers on a dance-by-dance basis. When taxi dancing first appeared during early 20th-century, male patrons purchased dance tickets for ten cents each. When a patron presented a ticket to a chosen dancer, she danced with him for the length of a single song. Taxi dancers earned a commission on each dance ticket like commissioned sales personnel.
Charity's chronic problem is that she wears her heart on her sleeve (literally a tattoo) as she incurs serial romances with unreliable types who simply use her and then dump her - once in a Central Park lake after her married boyfriend steals the cash from her purse. "Your big problem is that you run your heart like a hotel-you got guys checkin' in and out all the time." However, she is plucky and even after her humorous bedroom experience with an Italian movie star (Mark Uhre), we feel for her because she never gives up, and meek and mild Oscar Lindquist just might be her true soul mate.
Although lap dancing had not yet been invented, Director Morris Panych makes it obvious that the ladies at the Fandango sell much more than dances, and lighting designer Bonnie Beecher and Ken MacDonald's clever catwalk set that doubles as a subway setting, neatly captures this effect. The Fandango ladies are showcased inside narrow steel columns not unlike the windows that I recently observed in Amsterdam's Red Light district - appropriate I suppose, since NYC was once called New Amsterdam. Cameron Davis, Projections Designer, adds to the smart design with subway-like graphics that are quite effective, and given our hi-tech world, one wonders why more of this clever treatment is not added to contemporary theatre.
In her notes, Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell wants us to "Experience the bold and colourful world of 1960s New York through the eyes of Charity Hope Valentine. The dance hall hostess dreams of a brighter future but she can't help but give her heart to all the wrong guys. Then she meets the meek but sweet Oscar Lindquist when they get trapped in an elevator. Could he be the man to change Charity's luck and take her off the market as a heart-for-hire? Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields' bright music and dance numbers like 'Big Spender' and 'If My Friends Could See Me Now,' paired with a book by Neil Simon made this a Broadway hit when it premiered in 1966." I think Maxwell's wish was fulfilled.
Bob Fosse developed Sweet Charity in 1966 primarily as a vehicle for his wife, Gwen Verdon.
Inspired by Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, he exchanges the story of a Roman prostitute to that of a NYC taxi dancer. Neil Simon and Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields were responsible for the text and musical scores. Fosse was an American dancer, musical theatre choreographer, director, screenwriter, film director and actor who won 8 Tony Awards for choreography, more than anyone else, as well as one for direction. He was nominated for an Academy Award four times, winning for his direction of Cabaret, last year's Shaw musical.
The program's Musical Director and Director's notes are below.
Musical Director's Notes by Paul Sportelli
In 1966, when audiences first experienced Sweet Charity, they were hearing a new sound for musical theatre. Yes, there were relatively traditional musical theatre songs like 'If My Friends Could See Me Now,' but there were also songs with a new sort of groove. Composer Cy Coleman employed the most current musical forms and feels of the day, from jazz waltz in 'You Should See Yourself' to bossa nova in 'Charity's Soliloquy' to Swingle-Singers-meets-gospel/R&B in 'The Rhythm of Life.'"Rich Man's Frug" was the grooviest music Broadway had ever heard. Remember, Promises, Promises and Hair were still a year away, with Company and Jesus Christ Superstar even a few more years off. Coleman even managed to conjure the wistfulness of Nino Rota's score for Federico Fellini's film Nights of Cabiria, which was the inspiration for Sweet Charity.
Many Sweet Charity songs set benchmarks that still exist, from the brass and sass of 'Big Spender' to the rhythmic propulsion of 'There's Gotta Be Something Better.''Where Am I Going?' is as classic a song of questioning as any other, and 'I'm a Brass Band' is equally as classic in its use of extended metaphor. That has more to do with Dorothy Fields' lyrics than it does with Coleman's music. Stephen Sondheim calls Fields "the most underrated of the major lyricists" and the lyricist who "first made Broadway song lyrics genuinely conversational." There is a refreshing natural quality to Fields' work that allows the characters to express themselves in the same voice when they are singing as when they are speaking.
Sweet Charity is a new musical world for the Shaw Festival, with electric bass, electric guitar and an array of classic keyboard sounds from the 1960s. I hope you enjoy our adventure into this new territory as much as we do.
By Morris Panych
The Sweet Charity book is based on Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, a beautiful and heartbreaking film about a prostitute who punches and scrapes her way through her tough life. In the musical, Neil Simon, the book writer, and Dorothy Fields, the lyricist, have taken the story and refashioned it, dropping some of the themes and ideas of the film, picking up others along the way. Of course, what makes a great post-war, Italian, neo-realistic film may not quite make a 1960s Broadway show. Cabiria becomes Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer in a New York dance hall. There was often a great deal more these women did for hire, but in the musical, where the line is crossed into sex worker isn't clear, and so we are left to speculate as to the exact nature of the business in which Charity is engaged; one thing is certain, it involves money and it involves men.
The women in the musical accept their condition, as do the women in the film, but in Sweet Charity they also seem to long for something other, something better. Whereas in the film, they accept, with a certain defiance, their fate as commodities, this in both versions is where the central character stands apart; she has a simple, if impossible, ambition; to find romantic love, in a cold and unyielding metropolis. And when one plan goes awry, as it always does, she must quickly organize another, never quite realizing that her quest for true happiness is futile, so long
as it involves anyone other than herself. Or perhaps she does realize it and, Don Quixote-like, keeps searching anyway. What is touching and sweet about Charity is that she doesn't give up in the face of adversity; and it is her beautiful, sad, hopeless - and perhaps even inspiring - journey that is the heartbeat of this story.
Photos by David and Emily Cooper
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