Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Sweet Charity is based on an original screenplay by Federico Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Tullio Pinelli. It tells the story of a perpetually down-on-her luck dance hall hostess who has had a string of bad relationships. Charity has a heart of gold, and when she finally meets a nice guy named Oscar, her dreams of getting out of her seedy life finally appear to be within her reach. The show debuted on Broadway in 1966, and has had a few New York revivals over the years.
The book for the musical is by playwright Neil Simon. Simon created characters that are wildly imperfect but still lovable. The story introduces audiences to a number of unique groups of eccentric people in 1960s New York, and there's effective humor and insight about the human condition. For a show about hopes and dreams, it's unfortunate that the ending is not quite audience-friendly.
The score by Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) is one of the better ones from the period. Coleman put his jazz background to great use in several numbers. The praiseworthy lyrics by Fields likewise are quite memorable, expressing the longings of people (especially women) yearning for something better. Songs such as "Big Spender," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," "Where Am I Going?," and "I'm a Brass Band" are Broadway showtune royalty.
CCM's production is skillfully directed and choreographed by Diane Lala. She has lovingly re-created the dances by the show's original creative force–Bob Fosse. This choreography, including the iconic moves of "Big Spender" and "Rich Man's Frug," are delightful, playful, and quintessentially Fosse. The direction is fluid and fun, and includes a few unique theatrical ideas that enhance the material. Ian Axness leads a 12-piece orchestra which sounds great, except for a few sour notes from a horn during the overture.
Much of the show's success is on the shoulders of the actress playing Charity, and Grace Marie Rusnica certainly impresses. She brings the requisite determined, high-strung, and kooky personality to the character. Rusnica provides an endearing and fully committed performance, dances up a storm, and supplies strong vocals for her many songs. Benjamin Cheng garners lots of laughs as the neurotic love interest Oscar without going over the top, and he conveys warmth in his singing voice. Eliza Levy (Nickie) and Madison Mosley (Helene) provide stalwart support as Charity's two best friends from the dance hall and shine in several numbers. Stanislav Przedlacki provides a more subtle and realistic take on the role of Vittorio Vidal than is sometimes seen and displays great vocal prowess. The cast overall does a wonderful job with the many challenging dances.
The 1960s style set by Joshua Gallagher primarily consists of three modular towers which are used to creatively represent various locales, including an elevator, diner, apartment, and dance hall, just to name a few. There are also three small screens that display phrases which convey the passage of time, define place, or further set the tone for the scene. The back scrim displays projections that enhance the settings, and smaller set pieces are brought on as needed as well. It's a fitting and impressive design concept. The costumes by Clara Cavins are fun, period appropriate, and colorful. The lighting by Baron Leon is varied and includes several fun effects. There were a few technical glitches in the execution of the design elements at the performance attended.
Sweet Charity isn't mounted as often as many other 1960s hits, but it's a great choice for a program like CCM where triple-threat, talented performers can put all of their skills to great use. This cast, along with superb design and a traditional staging of the show (including a lovely re-creation of Bob Fosse's iconic dances), makes this a must-see musical this fall in Cincinnati.
Sweet Charity runs through September 30, 2023, at CCM, Patricia Corbett Theater, 290 CCM Blvd, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please call 513-556-4183 or visit ccmonstage.universitytickets.com/w/?cid=168.