It’s been far too long since a major production of the 1966 Broadway hit Sweet Charity has been mounted locally.  Thus, it’s a pleasure to announce Charity’s arrival at the Curtis Theatre in Brea. Though not at CLO level, this non-Equity production offers many pleasures, not the least of which are its bouncy, hummable songs, including now well-known standards like “Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” “Where Am I Going?”… The list of Cy Coleman-Dorothy Field hits goes on and on.

Sweet Charity, for those who’ve never seen it on stage or the 1969 movie version starring Shirley MacLaine, is the story of New York City dance hall hostess Charity Hope Valentine’s search for true love. Before we’ve even found out her name, poor sweet Charity (Jeanette Dawson) has been robbed of her dowry and thrown into a Central Park lake…by the man she was planning to marry if only he had asked her. Thanks to the “fickle finger of fate” (Charity’s favorite expression), our plucky heroine soon gets to meet Italian film star Vittorio Vidal (Fernando Acevedo), then finds herself trapped in an elevator with shy tax accountant Oscar Lindquist (Brad Fitzgerald) who may just have marriage on his mind.  Meanwhile, Charity’s two best buds, fellow dance hall girls Helene (Lisa Meert) and Nickie (Lily Bray) are there to offer Charity hope (“There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and “Baby Dream That Dream”) and a shoulder to cry on.

Any production of Sweet Charity will rise or fall depending on its leading lady. Charity is scarcely ever offstage, and requires a triple threat actress like Broadway original Gwen Verdon or her movie replacement MacLaine. Fortunately, the Curtis Theater revival has found its Charity in Dawson, who belts out Charity’s signature numbers with the best of them and brings to life the hapless heroine’s plucky spirit and awkward charm.

Fitzgerald, a CLO regular, gets his biggest role so far in Oscar, and scores many laughs while trapped in an elevator with Charity, who gives him the musical pep talk in their charmingly performed duet “I’m The Bravest Individual.”. Meert and Bray are likewise very good as Charity’s seen-it-all, done-it-all coworkers as is Fernando Acevedo as European heartthrob Vittorio.  Glamorous Sophia Pozzi pouts prettily as Vittorio’s on-again off-again girlfriend Ursula, and Mark Marger (Herman) and Jason Wesley Green (Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck) each get an in-the-spotlight number to show off their fine pipes, the former confessing “I Love To Cry At Weddings,” and the latter leading his hippie church congregation in “The Rhythm Of Life.”

Director-choreographer Martie Ramm leads her very young ensemble in a bunch of rousing production numbers which capture the feel of the Bob Fosse originals, though simplified here.  “Big Spender” has the dance hall hostesses deadpanning Fields’ lyrics in their sexy/funny signature poses.  “Rich Man’s Frug” imagines how New York’s snooty high society folk would execute the latest dance craze.  “I’m A Brass Band” has the entire company in band and majorette uniforms, marching a la “76 Trombones.”  Best of all is “The Rhythm Of Life” (choreographed by Aiden Daguro), which reminds us that this was the era of psychedelics and flower power.

The ensemble features a bakers dozen of up-and-coming musical theater performers.  The Fandango Ballroom girls are Jessica Apperson, Tayler Braasch, Lauren Cicerone, Whitney Finell, Tristen Gire, Allison Jakubowski, Dani Kerry, Sandra Paradis, Candice Shirk, and big-voiced Courtney Stokes as Rosie.  Also appearing are David Artavia, Thomas Bedolla, Jonathan Blake-Flemmings, Mike Krauss, Michael Lopez, Brynne McManimie, Jeff Mempin, Sergio Mitre, Ruben Renteria, Jenna Romano, Brandon Sanchez, and Ricky Wagner. Many of the above are teens playing characters several decades older than themselves, so considerable suspension of disbelief is required at times, but they are an eager and talented bunch of young performers.

Jimmy Vann’s vocal direction has the cast doing excellent harmonies to prerecorded tracks.  Kevin Clowes’ set and lighting design make the most of the production’s limited budget. I particularly liked Clowes’ evocation of Vittorio Vidal’s art deco apartment.  Kristopher Kataoka’s sound design works mostly well, despite a few opening night mike problems. Yolanda Rowell’s fine costume designs evoke the 60s, and run the gamut from sexy dance hall hostess mini-dresses, to tie-dyed hippie wear, to elegant black tie and evening gowns.

With its great songs and winning performances, especially Dawson’s in the title role, Sweet Charity is a sure bet to entertain audiences at the Curtis Theatre during its three-week run.

Curtis Theatre, 1 Civic Center Circle, Brea.

–Steven Stanley
March 13, 2009
                                                         Photos: Bill Warshaw

Comments are closed.