Shalom Life | September 23, 2015

Shaw Festival Review: Sweet Charity

YA novelist, Hermine Steinberg, reviews this year's mainstage event at The Shaw Festival.

By: Hermine Steinberg

Published: July 3rd, 2015 in Culture » Stage » News

Shaw Festival Review: Sweet Charity

Every year the Shaw Festival announcement of the big musical for its upcoming season is met with excitement and expectation. And, of course, as it is usually the major draw to the Festival, its success is vitally important. Last year, Peter Hinton’s Cabaret won him accolades and derision as he took a non-traditional approach to highly sensitive material and an iconic piece of theatrical history. And there lies the challenge, how to draw people to a play they may have seen many times and have a very defined way of seeing it, but still make it fresh and relevant. Familiarity breeds anticipation, if the play is well regarded, but it can also bring contempt if one tinkers too much with the formula that won its original praise and popularity. Although Hinton reimagined Cabaret, his vision -whether you liked it or not- was executed brilliantly.

So what did we expect when Sweet Charity was announced? After all, it is another iconic musical. The world premier was in 1966 and the original production ran for 608 performances. It was nominated for 12 Tony Awards. It won for Best Choreographer and that, of course, was no surprise because it was Bob Fosse with his precise, highly stylized, unique brand of dance that amazed audiences. And it was his wife whom Fosse built the musical around- the incredible Gwen Verdon- who made us fall in love with Charity. Fosse then directed and choreographed the film version with the unforgettable Shirley Maclaine.

So what do we expect from The Shaw Festival’s premiere production of Sweet Charity? Although the script was written by Neil Simon and does have a few great lines, we have come for the dancing, the music, and the central character whose endearing quirkiness and tragic hopefulness are both seamlessly embodied in a performer who can command the stage. And, unfortunately, we leave underwhelmed and disappointed because saying it was okay just isn’t good enough for this ground-breaking musical.

Sweet Charity is about a dance hall girl who dreams of getting out of the business. She is hoping to finally meet a man who will love her and want to make her his wife, providing her a new life – respectable and secure. But Charity keeps choosing the wrong men who end up taking advantage of her and leaving her disappointed and desperate, but somehow still hopeful. And then she meets the awkward Oscar Lindquist who actually falls in love with her and wants to marry her, until he discovers what Charity does for a living.

With the exception of “Rich Man’s Frug”, most of the dance numbers don’t create the excitement nor the high level of animation needed to lift the story to the benchmark we have come to expect. And Ken MacDonald’s stage design at times looks like it was directly lifted from a scene from Chicago.

However, the real problem lies with Julie Martel who has in the past demonstrated her many talents in numerous other Shaw Festival productions. Her dancing (and in some cases, lack of) was awkward and sluggish. Despite her great enthusiasm and strong voice, she never creates the complex Charity that has captured our hearts – tragic, passionate, funny, tough, and vulnerable – all at the same time. It is a difficult task but the story depends on it. She does not have the stage presence, dynamism, or intensity needed to carry it off and, in fact, when sharing the stage with the likes of Kimberley Rampersad (playing Nickie) and Melanie Phillipson (playing Helene), she seems to just fade into the background. To their credit, their performances offer some of the highlights of the evening.

Charlotte Dean certainly did Martel no favours by creating costumes for Charity that were forgettable and dowdy in comparison to the other girls on stage. Whoever’s decision it was to put her in that horrible red wig, making her look more like an ingénue than the free spirit she was meant to be, should write a personal note of apology to Ms. Martel.

The men in Sweet Charity seem to carry their weight. Kyle Blair who plays the insecure and somewhat damaged Oscar Lindquist was convincing. However, Jeremy Carver-James delivered a Daddy Brubeck that injected badly needed life into the show . And Jay Turvey, who is the charismatic but impetuous celebrity (Herman), charms and entertains.

Sweet Charity ends with a whimper, and although we know there is no happy ending, it felt unsatisfying and unfinished. As director and choreographer Bob Fosse knew, Sweet Charity was all about the execution, delivering this heartbreaking story by carefully managing the tension between hope and desperation, love and pain though precise direction and powerful performances. Morris Panych unfortunately couldn’t create the magic that was needed to make Sweet Charity the satisfying treat we had all hoped for this season.

Hermine Steinberg is a young adult/children’s author and high school teacher living in Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. Her novel, The Co-Walkers: Awakening, is now available. For more information, visit www.cowalkers.com.

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