For those of you who do not live on the warm side of the Caldecott, you need to know that there is an incredibly talented musical theatre actress who is worth the drive (or via BART a few blocks away).
Molly Bell* is Broadway professional in the talent department. In “Sweet Charity,” now at Center Rep at the Margaret Lesher Theatre, she makes you forget about Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 movie. She exudes the requisite innocence, vivacity, and feistiness of Charity Hope Valentine in this very dated, bittersweet musical. I was astounded that she was the same sophisticated lady who wowed us in the Cole Porter tribute “The Marvelous Party” at Center Rep three years ago. I never saw the legendary Gwen Verdon who created the role on Broadway, but Ms. Bell brings a naïve core with an unconquerable soul to the role that makes it about the character as much as about her inspired singing and dancing.
Jennifer Perry’s choreography does justice to the Bob Fosse tradition. Sweet Charity was the late, great Fosse’s concept, with book by Neil Simon,and music by Cy Coleman who won five Tonys. Coleman wrote standards like “Witchcraft” and “The Best is Yet to Come,” and his musicals “On the Twentieth Century” and “Will Rogers Follies” and “City of Angels” still get a lot of play. Lyrics are by Betty Fields who wrote standards like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, “Exactly Like You”, “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and “The Way You Look Tonight.” Her major musical was “Annie Get Your Gun.”
The two well-known songs from “Sweet Charity” are “If They Could See Me Now,” which Molly Bell knocks out of the park (pardon the baseball metaphor: I had dinner at Willie McCovey’s a block away post Sunday afternoon matinee), and the catchy and libidinous “Hey, Big Spender.”
The musical is simple: Manhattan dance hall girl (not quite a hooker) is a love addict who can’t find love. She meets a shy accountant in a stuck elevator. It seems simple and a throw-back in this era of musicals about schizophrenics, the ravages of AIDS, and teenage sex and suicide. But it was written in 1966 on the cusp of the Feminist Revolution, and while it proceeds for a while in a simplistic plotting, it turns out not to be an easy girl meets boy, etc., formula.
It was fashioned after Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” and even has a Marcello Mastroianni-like character with whom she nearly has a one-night stand. Noel Anthony* is masterful in both his resonant and impressive baritone and his portrayal of a smooth Roman cinema idol.
Seems dance hall girls were the forerunner to the lap-dancer. A man paid for a dance and the groping game commenced with the dancer removing the man’s hand as fast as he could grab. Some took it a little further for a cash supplement.
It was a well-fashioned cast, with Alison Ewing* and Brittany Danielle* as Nickie and Helene, the dance hall mother superior and her sidekick at the Fandango Dance Hall, and Keith Pinto* as Oscar, the nerdy groom-to-be, who pairs superbly with our lead. Kurt Landisman provides his usual superior lighting, with an easy and functional sliding door set by Annie Smart. The costumes by Christine Crook are what you would expect from a 1960’s musical from the era of “Be-in” and “Hair.” Sean Kana’s musical direction is award-worthy, with little snatches of barber-shop quartet and a marvelous blend of voices, particularly in Nickie and Helene’s duet “Baby, Dream Your Dream.”
One of the most memorable scenes is of an adventurous visit the unlikely couple makes to a San Francisco-transplanted hippie church “The Rhythm of Life.” James Monroe Iglehart* as “Big Daddy,” the leader of the cult, is an overwhelming presence on the stage, who moves his prodigious bulk gracefully with a gospel-powered, rock-the-house voice. (Reminded this reviewer of the “Church of John Coltrane”; however, it seemed ironic in hindsight memory of Jim Jones and David Koresh.)
After reviewing the dense and attention-demanding “Copenhagen” and “Arcadia” last week, this was light, entertaining fun fare that was refreshing in contrast. It’s all about the talent and the production values, and worth the time to bring a smile on a Sunday afternoon.
Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Betty Fields, book by Neil Simon, from a concept by Bob Fosse.
Directed by Timothy Near
Playing through June 22 at Center Rep at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts
More info at http://centerrep.org/
(*Member, Actor’s Equity Association)