Director Neil Dale and choreographer Janet Renslow make a triumphant return to Candlelight Dinner Theatre for the Neil Simon-Cy Coleman-Dorothy Field musical comedy classic Sweet Charity, giving San Gabriel Valley-Inland Empire audiences the best Candlelight show I’ve seen since the duo’s innovative, multiple-Scenie-winning Miss Saigon.

img_9305 The now well-known standards “Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” and “Where Am I Going?” are just three of the bouncy, hummable Coleman-Field hits that make 1966’s Sweet Charity one of the Swinging Sixties’ most tuneful musicals, while Simon’s delightful book is an early-career gem from America’s master comic playwright.

For those who’ve never seen Sweet Charity on stage or in its 1969 movie version starring Shirley MacLaine, Simon’s book (an Americanization of Federico Fellini’s Nights Of Cabiria) recounts the tale of New York City dance hall hostess Charity Hope Valentine and her search for true love.

And what a rocky road it is, since before we’ve even found out her name, poor sweet Charity (Tracy Pedretti on the Candlelight stage) 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 (understudy John LaLonde at the performance reviewed), then finds herself trapped in an elevator with shy tax accountant Oscar Lindquist (Bobby Collins) who may just have marriage on his mind. Meanwhile, Charity’s two best buds, fellow dance hall girls Helene (Tiffany Reid) and Nickie (Eli Menendez) are there to offer Charity hope and a shoulder to cry on.

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Since Charity is scarcely ever offstage, any production of Sweet Charity will rise or fall depending on its leading lady, the role requiring a true triple-threat, and in its Charity Hope Valentine, Candlelight has struck pure gold. Pedretti not only captures Charity’s infectious charm and unsinkable optimism despite a series of setbacks that would lead most of us to throw in the towel, her vocals have just the right mix of vulnerability and pizzazz. As for her dance moves, they would surely get thumbs up from either Verdon or the man who choreographed Sweet Charity as a gift for his muse, the inimitable Bob Fosse. And Miss Pedretti twirls a baton like dynamite!

img_8686 Choreographer Renslow has done her Fosse homework by going as straight to the source as humanly possible, picking the brains of performers who worked with the Broadway legend to find out precisely what made his choreography snap, crackle, and pop, and it shows in production number after production number that pay tribute to Fosse’s trademark turned-in knees, jutting hips, sideways shuffling, and hand-and-shoulder rolls, while at the same time exhibiting the imagination and flair that helped make Renslow’s recent You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown such an all-around delight.

In addition to Pedretti’s finely-honed performance under Dale’s expert direction, Candlelight’s latest offering features one terrific performance after another, beginning with Collins, who makes Oscar as irresistibly charming a nerd as any Charity could hope to fall for, singing the title song and duetting “I’m The Bravest Individual” with Pedretti in a tenor that would do any crooner proud.

img_9402 Reid and Menendez are sassy treats as Charity’s seen-it-all, done-it-all coworkers, turning “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and “Baby Dream That Dream” into a pair of show-stoppers. As for LaLonde, the triple-threat’s tall-dark-and-handsome looks, comedic chops, and soaring vocals make European heartthrob Vittorio a perfect fit for Candlelight’s multitalented artistic director.

Kayla Ann Bullock gives Vittorio’s on-again off-again girlfriend Ursula plenty of Italian va-va-voom, Robert Hoyt’s velvety tenor makes Herman’s confession that “I Love To Cry At Weddings” an Act Two show-stopper, and speaking of show-stopping, a groovy Michael Wordly’s “Daddy Brubeck” leads his hippie church congregation in the super infectious “The Rhythm Of Life,” a veritable cornucopia of ‘60s psychedelics.

Dancehall girls Jeni Baker (Elaine) Angela Calderon (Carmen), Deborah Fauerbach (Frenchie), Marie Gutierrez (Rosie), Regina Laughlin (Suzanne), and Renee Rand (Betsy) combine deliciously deadpan vocals and the bar girls’ “signature poses” to make “Big Spender” yet another standout song-and-dance sequence.

img_8761 Not to be outdone, there’s also Fosse’s iconic “Rich Man’s Frug,” which has a lithe and leggy Fauerbach (as Ponytail Dancer) leading the entire ensemble in a three-part salute to the ‘60s as the rich and snooty might have danced it, the ladies joined this time by Marius Beltran, Ryan Chlanda, Nicholas Gutierrez, Josh Pecjak, Orlando Montes (Assistant to Brubeck), Bryan Overmyer (Assistant to Brubeck, Manfred), and dance captain Justin Matthew Segura, each more handsome and talented than the next, and given their own all-male showcase opposite Pedretti in the 76 Trombones-esque “I’m A Brass Band”

The entire cast impress vocally, their group numbers featuring no pre-recorded “sweetening” this time round. What you hear are live vocals, under Martin Green’s assured musical directorship, performed to prerecorded instrumental tracks that sound almost as good as live.

img_9220 img_9469 Sweet Charity may well be the best looking multi-set production I’ve seen at Candlelight, scenic artist Kerry Jones suggesting the show’s many locales via various modular units that give us the dance hall, dressing rooms, and Vittorio’s apartment in front of a silhouetted New York skyline, and in two particularly fine bits of scenic design, a two-level elevator and a Ferris wheel which has Charity and Oscar seemingly suspended high above the audience. Main State Music Theatre Costumes has provided countless ‘60s outfits to make this Sweet Charity even more of a visual treat, particularly as expertly lit by lighting designer Steve Giltner of SteveGDesign. Logan Grosjean is stage manager.

If there’s any advice I could give to Candlelight general manager/vice president Michael Bollinger and artistic director LaLonde, it would be to keep bringing back Dale and Renslow for as many productions as the dynamic duo are available to direct and choreograph. Lightning struck Candlelight last year with their Miss Saigon. Sweet Charity disproves the notion that a firebolt can never strike twice in the same place, because strike twice it has at Candlelight, and then some.

Candlelight Pavilion, 455 W. Foothill Blvd., Claremont.

–Steven Stanley
April 7, 2013
Photos: Isaac James Creative

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