Photograph by Ken Jacques
Sweet Charity: How do you love me now?
Here, in the third show of its ninth season, the Oceanside Theatre Company decided to do something they hadn’t done before, not even during their first-ever musical, last year’s Man of La Mancha: big production numbers and set movements. Artistic director (and play director) Ted Leib writes that he was inspired by the FX’s TV biographical drama Fosse/Verdon to tackle Sweet Charity, the 1966 musical which Bob Fosse conceived and directed and choreographed, and in which his wife Gwen Verdon starred.
One of the remarkable things about attending community theater is the “community” part. You may, for instance, happen to find yourself seated next to the parents of lead actress Kalin Booker, and just in front of a woman who recalls seeing Verdon originate the role on Broadway, and who thinks Booker compares favorably. (“She’s a triple threat!”) And also next to a woman who has seen you scribbling notes through the first act and wants to know what you think.
Well, all right, what do I think? I get the triple threat comment: Booker can sing, even if the sheer size of the part threatens at times to overwhelm her and the sheer range of the songs pushes at the low end of her register. And she can dance, even if she gets left alone onstage a bit too long in places. But what’s more important is that she can act through the singing and the dancing. As the video screens on stage inform us, Charity is a girl who wants to be loved. The character wants love from a man (just about any man will do, as long as he loves her, or even seems like he might be starting to be able to think about beginning to love her), but the actress has to look for it from the audience. We need to feel her need throughout (not just when she faces us and sings about her romantic yearning): love me. Please love me. And Booker is up to the task: forever ingratiating, forever appealing, forever pleading. Some of the other actors can hold their own against her — notably Steve Lawrence as the nebbish accountant Oscar who gets stuck in an elevator with Charity at the 92nd Street Y — but it’s always her show to carry.
The musical was based on Frederico Fellini’s 1957 film Nights of Cabiria. There, the star is an Italian prostitute. Here, she’s cleaned up into a dance-hall girl: still in the rent-a-body business, but without the ickier bits. But Neil Simon’s book takes pains to assure that Charity is not a sweet show — if anything, it’s even more mean-spirited than the movie. At the film’s outset, Cabiria is pushed into the river by a boyfriend who steals her purse, but rescued by decent ordinary people living downstream. In the play, the ordinary people are anything but decent: as Charity sinks into a city pond, they gather 'round, unmoved and unmoving. “I’ll get my kid brother,” says one woman, “he’s never seen a drowning.” Eventually, Charity is hauled from the water, but even then, it’s only the local pervert who steps up to give mouth to mouth resuscitation. For all the spirited music, glittering sequins, and flattering light, Charity lives in an ugly world — the better to highlight her relentless good cheer and even better hope.
Parts of the show left me wondering. If community theater means bang for your buck, then yeah, you’re going to want to include everything from the original, including the dance numbers from inside the swanky Pompeii Club that have nothing to do with anything but watching people dance. (This was a Fosse show…) And especially including the visit to a hippie cult masquerading as a church that opens act two. Back in 1966, that must have worked liked gangbusters to signify Sweet Charity’s position on the cultural edge: not only are we featuring a romantic dreamer who isn’t even a virgin, but we’re also tossing in a bunch of hippies, who just might spell the end of civilization with their free love and their marijuana cigarettes. Now, it plays either as silly nostalgia (remember those goofballs?) or creepy weirdness (remember Charlie Manson?). Both the dancers and the hippies knew their stuff, but the show might have played better without them. (Other odd bits: a joke that relies on the idea that only foreign movies feature frank depictions of sex, a joke that relies on the audience knowing that Norman Mailer was a better novelist than poet, a joke that relies on it being shocking to hear a woman say, “Up yours!” The solid comedy of Charity is timeless, and there’s plenty of it, which makes the dated stuff stand out.)
Because even without the extraneous bits, the company has succeeded in its effort to break new ground. The “big production numbers and set movements” work in nearly every instance. Charity’s performance from inside a wardrobe as she watches a movie star play out a real life love scene may be the comedic high point, and the ensemble performance of “I Love to Cry at Weddings” does great, exuberant work in setting up the show’s dramatic finish.
- Sweet Charity, by Neil Simon (book), Cy Coleman (music), Dorothy Fields (lyrics)
- Oceanside Theatre Company at the Brooks Theatre, 217 North Coast Highway, Oceanside
- Directed by Ted Leib, cast: Kalin Booker, Olivia Pence, Audrey Etchison, Steve Lawrence, Tanner Vidos; set design, Alyssa Kane; costumes, Bernice Brosious and Jeffrey Wallach; lighting, Rebecca Goodman; choreographer, Siri Hafso; music director, Martin Martiarena; vocal director, Tara Sampson.
- Playing through March 29, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2 pm.