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Good Times, Fun, and Some Laughs: SWEET CHARITY at Cockpit In Court

Good Times, Fun, and Some Laughs: SWEET CHARITY at Cockpit In Court

When I heard that Cockpit in Court, now in its 50th season producing musicals and other shows at Community College for Baltimore County in Essex, was putting on Sweet Charity, I was intrigued. I knew it had been an influential hit in the 1960s, responsible for three songs that had become standards: Big Spender, If My Friends Could See Me Now, and Where Am I Going?. I was aware that it was based on a Frederico Fellini movie. And I knew it was a product of the great partnership of choreographer Bob Fosse and singer/dancer Gwen Verdon. But I also knew it doesn't get revived much any more, which seemed strange, given its antecedents. So I approached the show with strong sense of curiosity: How did a show that was once such a big deal become a tad obscure?

Let me say at the outset that Cockpit and its creative team, including director Eric J. Potter, choreographer Ilona Kessel, and musical director Nathan Scavilla, have produced a swell evening of theater, but also that my question was answered. The answer, for me at least, is that there's no way to appreciate Sweet Charity except as a period piece. As such, though, it holds the interest.

When the show was first produced, in 1966, there were various young women depicted in popular art like the heroine here, Charity Hope Valentine (Becca Vourvoulas), often described as waifs. There was, for instance, Holly Golightly, novelist Truman Capote's creation immortalized in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), and Fran Kubelik, the romantic lead in The Apartment (1960), which in 1968 became the basis for Promises, Promises, a musical whose book was penned by Neil Simon - also the author of the book for Sweet Charity. Shirley MacLaine played two of these waifs (Fran in The Apartment, and Charity in the movie of Sweet Charity) and was offered but turned down the role of Holly Golightly, the third. Common to all three was a conception of a certain combination of circumstances and personality: the sexually sullied but cheerful and kind, and essentially naïve "girl." (I put the term in quotes because we do not ordinarily speak of young women as girls now, but that was the term used in these works, and I think it's telling in this context.)

As to the sexual piece of the combination: in an era when sex outside of marriage was still officially spoken of with disapproval, Charity is a "dance hall girl," Holly is a prostitute (although she doesn't like to speak of it that way and Capote claimed she was a "geisha"), and Fran carries on a romance with her married boss, and all are looking for a more socially acceptable and personally fulfilling romantic life. In this shadowy world, each is vulnerable to mistreatment and is in fact mistreated, and yet, mostly, maintains a kind of innocent optimism.

It's also worthwhile comparing Charity to her predecessor Cabiria in Sweet Charity's source material, Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957). Cabiria is a streetwalker, shown queued up with her colleagues on shady Roman streets, approaching cars, and running from a vice raid. Also depicted participating in Catholic devotions, she seems to have no moral qualms specifically about her line of work, nor does Fellini. She does have a naïve faith in romance, which she is ill-suited to pursue, given what she does for a living, and how her society regards it. But that is her problem, not Fellini's. (His early comfort with prostitutes may be gleaned from, for instance, the depiction of La Saraghina, a prostitute who made friends with the little boys, in his largely autobiographical later movie 8 ½.)

Contrast Fellini's attitude with Neil Simon's very complicated attitude in Sweet Charity. Making the character a "dance hall girl" or a "taxi dancer" (someone paid piecework rates to dance with customers at a dance hall) was a bit of a stretch to begin with, as that occupation had nearly disappeared in New York (where the story now took place) by the time of the musical. But the workplace is depicted as more of a bordello than a true dance hall anyway. I have to guess Neil Simon was queasy - or figured his audiences would be, which amounts to the same thing, with making his heroine a frank prostitute. More confusing than that, though, he didn't even want the character to have much of a sexual past. Some was apparently okay, given that we see Charity unambiguously offering sexual favors to one character. But not much. Significantly, an important turn of the plot involves someone important having major problems with the fact that Charity isn't a virgin, even though the information that she doesn't qualify for the label is conveyed in very indefinite fashion. Still, a queasiness with her sexual behavior, and especially its more commercial aspects, is very plain in Simon's book.

Not only does that queasiness make the book seem dated, but one suspects that it also had the secondary bad effect of motivating Simon to amp up the fecklessness and lack of judgment in the character, to make her more waif-like, in short. One can imagine Simon's calculus: Charity sells something sexual (whatever it is, exactly), so we have to offset that character defect by exaggerating her allegedly appealing childlike qualities.

Neither the queasiness nor the strategy to offset it would be necessary, or even politically correct, in today's theater. "Childlike" is not a positive in today's theater or today's larger discourse. Buying Simon's bundle of attitudes about sexual experience or sex work today would be like borrowing the emphasis on sexual "purity" and the endless bouts of sexual jealousy from classical Italian opera. It's not just outdated, it's embarrassingly so.

Nor is that the only flaw in dwelling on that bundle of attitudes; perhaps even worse is the way it clashes with Bob Fosse's contribution. Fosse's choreography is almost always about sex, the wickeder and more disreputable the better. (Think Chicago.) The discontinuity between Simon's tepid discomfort with and Fosse's frank affirmance of whatever kind of sex work really happens at the dance hall grows intense with the number Big Spender, which by no coincidence looks like a bordello lineup. (Fosse spent much of his adolescence working in burlesque clubs; he was thus working directly from his heritage.) And in the tug-of-war between Fosse's influence and Neil Simon's, the songwriters Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields seemed to be more in Fosse's corner. Big Spender doesn't glamorize the denizens of the dance hall or their work, but make clear that the brassy come-on the song conveys is a mask and a commercial necessity, and the song does not condemn the women for what they must do.

As the program to this production advises the audience, "Selected musical numbers showcase the original choreography of the late, great Bob Fosse." That's true at least with respect to Big Spender, and also with the dance number at the nightclub Charity wanders into in the middle of Act I, Rich Man's Frug. What strikes one about both numbers, even though the chorus is depicting sex workers in the first and the haute monde in the second, is the dead eyes in each of them. To Charity, the rich people look very different; to this spectator and I think to Fosse, they look very similar.

At the same time, Charity's cruise through different scenes is supposed to be an entertaining and various travelogue for the audience, and also for Charity, this hardy traveler through life. That was a strong part of the dynamic with Nights of Cabiria, and it's somewhat preserved in Sweet Charity. Cabiria and Charity each have a foot in the demimonde, but also, courtesy of Charity's encounter with a Mastroianni-like movie star (Mark D. Macaluso in the Cockpit production), each gets a glimpse of the high life, leading to a Pretty Woman-like moment of exaltation by Charity, the afore-mentioned If My Friends Could See Me Now. There is also a church-like experience for each of them, though there is no comparing the damp squib of that scene in Sweet Charity with the powerful and mysterious cult pilgrimage and Cabiria's response to it in Fellini's movie. In what is probably the worst mistake in Sweet Charity, the then middle-aged creators of the show tried to visit the world of the hippies, definitely a bridge too far. We can't blame it on an attempt to emulate Hair, since Sweet Charity came first, a year or two earlier. We can articulate a general principle, though, based on it: Middle-age should never parody youth; it will not end well. There are other adventures that come Cabiria's way which have no parallel in Sweet Charity, because at this point in the travelogue Sweet Charity veers off on a wholly original romantic tangent.

At this point as well, reviewer ethics intervene to keep me from revealing too much, but I will say that neither Charity nor Cabiria ends up satisfying fantasies of a happily-ever-after love. And this is crushing to Charity, who has been set up early as believing, despite all evidence to the contrary, that "Without love, life has no purpose." I never saw Verdon deliver the line, but I have seen Shirley MacLaine do so in the movie, and can report that, though some critics have thrown shade on MacLaine's performance, that scene is some of her best and most convincing work. For someone who holds such a conviction as Charity does, the only path to recovery is a hopefulness that parallels the persistence of Mother Courage, though it perhaps lacks Mother Courage's sense of realism. Charity is nonetheless supposed to be admirable, whatever opinion a modern audience might form.

Charity's final relationship, Oscar (Alexander Conte) is another character whom in this day and age I have trouble believing in. A neurotic nervous wreck with other issues as well, it's a wonder he can keep drawing breath, let alone attract Charity.

Take her as you will, Cockpit in Court does well by Charity. Becca Vourvoulas' singing, dancing, and acting in portraying her are impeccable. As her dance hall buddies Nikki and Helene, Natalie Knox and Katie Sheldon not only go about their delivery unexceptionably, but also bring a leavening air of common sense and normality that frames what's different about Charity. Oscar in his tics and compulsions will remind one of another Neil Simon character, Felix in The Odd Couple. But if you must have a nebbishy nervous wreck, as Simon and Company seem to require, then Alexander Conte supplies the goods. The costumes (Eva Grove) and lighting (Thomas P. Gardner) seem to be everything one could ask for.

In any case, if you haven't seen this classic show, as I had not, or if on the other hand it is one of your favorites, catching this production will be well worth your while. Dated and flawed as I consider it, Sweet Charity is something of a landmark in the world of the American musical, and this rendition is admirable. And then there are those three big songs. It won't all be peaches and cream, but you will definitely experience good times, fun and some laughs.

Sweet Charity, book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, directed by Eric J. Potter, choreographed by Ilona Kessel, presented through August 7 at Robert and Eleanore Romadka College Center, Community College of Baltimore County Essex, 7201 Rossville Blvd, Rosedale, MD 21237. Tickets $15-$22 via button below or at 443.840.2787. Some adult themes.

From This Author - Jack L. B. Gohn

Good Times, Fun, and Some Laughs: SWEET CHARITY at Cockpit In Court
July 25, 2022

Dated and flawed as I consider it, Sweet Charity is something of a landmark in the world of the American musical, and this rendition is admirable. And then there are those three big songs. You will definitely experience good times, fun and some laughs.

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