The Shaw Festival’s main musical staging of Neil Simon’s Sweet Charity lacks empathy, but is packed full of entertainment. Featuring music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, the music and notable dance ensembles will leave you grooving right through the charming shops, restaurants and ice cream parlors that consume the small town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Just like the vivacious era, each song will remain engrained in your memory only to emerge during unexpected moments.
Based on Federico Fellini’s film, Nights of Cabiria, the musical tells the story of New York Taxi Dancer Charity Hope Valentine’s (Julie Martell) lackluster search for love. Charity works in a dance hall, dancing with men for income in spite of her fiancé Charlie (Grant Landry), who immediately dumps and robs her right at the beginning of the show. Charity continues to work at the Fandango ballroom with the other girls, notably Helene (Melanie Phillipson) and Nickie (Kimberley Rampersad), until she surprisingly falls in love with Oscar Lindquist (Kyle Blair). With visions of longing finally coming into play, the production takes numerous turns, until shockingly coming to an unprecedented end, which is confusing, yet demanding.
With recognizable numbers including “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” the musical’s element of vamped-up choreography and spectacle engages from beginning to end. Of them, “Rich Man’s Frug” stands out as the highlight of the entire performance, a number that continually works to inspire multiple pieces through its sixties glam. Every element from the orchestra to the platform shoes was triumphantly spot-on – a truthful musical essence that transports audiences into the urban, psychedelic past.
That being said, the musical numbers alleviate the lack of empathy brought through the production’s main character. Upon abruptly entering the high life of movie-heartthrob Vittorio Vidal's (Mark Uhre) lavish New York suite, interest is sparked and we see a hope for both Charity and the narrative as a whole. Although hopeful, Charity’s life returns to the ballroom and crushes all potential for an alternative personal narrative. Running through cyclical patterns of love, desperation and longing, we sadly do not care what happens to Charity Valentine.
Scenic designer Ken MacDonald incorporates a cinematic approach to design that heightens the production. Using multifunctional set pieces, the design relies almost primarily on projections to assist the narrative. While effective during ensemble numbers and landscape horizons, the projections often distract from the ensuing action onstage. The use of projected movement during subway sequences was thoughtfully embedded to create a true New York essence – highly appealing and harmoniously collaborated.
Charlotte Dean’s costume design was totally ‘outta sight’ - in the best way possible. Dean’s work was effective in translating between the various classes, stereotypes and geographical locations throughout the city, highlighting both hipness and desperation – a true testament to the sixties. Paralleled with the costumes was Bonnie Beecher’s lighting design to successfully isolate and emphasize the major plot developments throughout.
Despite the lack of empathy and engagement with the production’s leading lady, the movement and outstanding musical entertainment will keep you longing for more.
Sweet Charity runs to Oct. 31 at the Shaw Festival Theatre. For more information or to book your tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.
photo credit: David Cooper