BWW Reviews: Trio of Leading Ladies Provide the Heart for Keeton Theatre's SWEET CHARITY

November 11
12:18 PM 2012

BWW Reviews: Trio of Leading Ladies Provide the Heart for Keeton Theatre's SWEET CHARITY

Despite terrific performances by the show's three leading ladies, The Larry Keeton Theatre's production of Sweet Charity, that 1966 musical theater oddity that spawned two of pop music's favorite showtunes-"If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "Hey, Big Spender"-lacks the polish and pizzazz expected from a theatre company known for its top-flight musical revivals.

Starring the luminous (and extraordinarily versatile) Mallory Gleason as the show's eponymous leading lady Charity Hope Valentine, Sweet Charity features a witty (and edgy by mid-1960s standards) book by Neil Simon set to music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Based on Federico Fellini's original screenplay for Nights of Cabiria (which focused on a French streetwalker with a proverbial heart of gold), the musical transforms Charity into a taxi dancer at NYC's Fandango Ballroom. What remains is the story of the romantic girl who struggles to find true love and makes her living doing what she does best: drawing strange men into her charmed circle.

Sweet Charity debuted in the same Broadway season as Cabaret and was probably overshadowed by that Kander and Ebb show, but it was nominated for 12 Tony Awards-Bob Fosse won for his now iconic choreography for the show that he conceived and directed-and it became a film starring Shirley MacLaine in 1969 (with Fosse again at the helm) and it's been given a couple of noteworthy, if somewhat less successful, main stem revivals in the intervening years. Nashville's Circle Players produced the musical in its 1993-94 season, directed by Rick Seay and starring, among others, Debbie Kraski, who since has become one of the local theater community's most respected actors.

I mention Debbie Kraski because I believe that just as she has become one of Nashville's best-loved performers, so too will Mallory Gleason and her two cohorts-Stacie Riggs and Tonya Pewitt-be included in that starry pantheon of local actresses. Their places, of course, are most likely assured thanks to Gleason's startlingly fresh and focused performances in A Chorus Line and Into the Woods, among a string of well-received productions, while Riggs and Pewitt (both of whom are true triple threats) staked their claims with their portrayals of Velma and Roxie in The Keeton's superb 2011 revival of Chicago. The three women bring their characters of Charity, Nickie and Helene, respectively, to life onstage with vivid intensity, imbuing each with heart, verve and an off-kilter sense of style.

Gleason's take on Charity is sweetly sentimental and fun, but there's an undercurrent of psychosis running through the character's dramatic arc and the actress proves equal to the challenge, performing Charity's songs with confidence and elan. Her performance of "If My Friends Could See Me Now" (which has been performed on more beauty pageant stages than you could imagine since 1966) is given a somewhat contemporary twist in your version and in her scenes with her star-crossed lover Oscar Lindquist (played with mixed results by Macon Kimbrough) she very nearly breaks your heart with her wide-eyed sense of wonder and unyielding hopefulness. Also of particular note: Gleason's renditions of "Charity's Soliloquy" and the heartbreaking "Where Am I Going" that comes late in Act Two.

Riggs and Pewitt are wonderful as Nickie and Helene, Charity's wizened and world-weary best pals from the Fandango, and their performance of "Baby, Dream Your Dream" in Act Two is clearly one of the production's musical highlights. Their trio with Gleason on Act One's "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" is another highlight, with each woman giving their all to lay bare their hearts and souls on the stage. Director Jamie London's decision to pair Riggs and Pewitt in Sweet Charity is inspired, evoking many pleasant memories of their earlier pairing in Chicago.

Among the large ensemble (wherein experience, talent levels and commitment seem far-ranging), Daniel Collins is impressively charming and continental as film heartthrob Vittorio Vidal; Bobby Milford is entertainingly over-the-top as Daddy Brubeck, the preacher man of a sort who leads the Rhythm of Life Church with oily manipulation; and Rae Robeson is on-target as Rosie, a young woman who comes to work at the Fandango Ballroom.

However, overall, London's direction seems somewhat unfocused and the show's sometimes lugubrious pacing threatens to throw the entire production off-track. The production really takes off during its musical numbers, as should be expected considering Ginger Newman's fine musical direction, and Kate Adams' choreography, which evokes much of Fosse's work, is exceptional. Congratulations to the ensemble for their fine performance of "Rich Man's Frug" and "I'm a Brass Band."

The show's design aesthetic is nicely represented by Emily Rodriguez' set design and Kelly Landry's lighting design. Jane Schnelle, who doubles as producer and costumer, clothes her cast in period-flavored design that adds to the overall effect of the show.

Nashville THEATER

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors - the history of which can be traced to 1989 and the first presentation of The First Night Awards - which honor outstanding theater artisans from Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and also includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors recognition. Midwinter's First Night honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. An accomplished director, Ellis helmed productions of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, all in their Nashville premieres, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show. Ellis was recognized by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror. In 2015, he directed William Inge's Picnic for Circle Players and Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years for VWA Theatricals, with The Larry Keeton Theatre's production of Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest set for spring 2016.


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