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Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields iconic 1960's musical SWEET CHARITY is playing on the stage of the Festival Theatre as this year's musical offering at the Shaw Festival in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario. Visually stunning and often energetically infectious, this musical, with book by Neil Simon, comes at a time when everything mod is new again. The "MAD MEN" era has made a resurgence in clothing and home furnishings, so this nod to the past seems perfectly placed. Coleman's score includes such standards as "Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now."
" Big Spender"
Based on the Fellini film "Nights of Cabiria," the story is now placed in the seedy side of New York City where dance hall hostesses try to make a living selling their "talents" in Tango Parlors. This vacuous life style is explored through one woman's story. We are exposed to the grimy backstage life of the hostesses and their desire for a better life-- examples being a hat check girl or a secretary. The present day Broadway musical doesn't often showcase a single talent any more, but the 1960's was the decade of Angela Lansbury as MAME, Carol Channing in HELLO DOLLY and Barbra Streisand in FUNNY GIRL.
Julie Martell as Charity
Charity Hope Valentine, the titular character, was written for the talents of Gwen Verdon. Verdon was one of those Golden Age of Broadway rare triple threats- dancer, singer and actress-- well, honestly her singing voice could only be described as gravelly, at best. The Shaw Festival's Charity is played by Julie Martell, but unfortunately Miss Martell's dancing comes in at a distant third in regards to being a triple threat. Martell does her affable best to strut and strike poses in between her basic choreography, but the dynamicism needed to hold the stage while dancing was not there. SWEET CHARITY has stunning 1960's orchestrations, which during their dance breaks make it clear that precision choreography was the order of business. Choreographer Bob Fosse won a TONY Award for his signature style in the original 1966 production. The most recent Broadway revival with Christina Applegate suffered from lack of star power. Applegate had the charm but lacked dancing expertise to dominate the stage. Martell does possess a pleasant singing voice and by the show's dramatic final scene, the audience had grown to love this chronically down-on-her-luck character. Charity's side kicks at the dance hall were Helene (Melanie Phillipson) and Nickie (Kimberley Rampersad). The trio's number "There's Gotta Be Something Better" dreaming of a better life starts slowly but with it's underlying Latin rhythms should build and culminate in frenetic dancing, but it never seemed to peak as it should.
Phillipson, Martell and Rampersad
The men fare much better in this production. Kyle Blair was brilliant as Oscar, the neurotic nerd who falls in love with Charity. His quirkiness was endearing and his introduction scene to Charity, while trapped in an elevator, was hilarious. He sings well and inhabited the role with complete conviction. Mark Uhre played Vittorio, the suave Italian B-list movie star with whom Charity has a one night stand (of sorts). Uhre has the good looks and the strong voice that were reminiscent of the Italian heart throb Sergio Franchi. In "Too Many Tomorrows" he sings one of the most beautiful, but often unrecognized love songs in the Broadway cannon to stunning effect.
Martell and Uhre
Shaw Festival veteran Jay Turvey is Herman, the owner of the dance hall where Charity works. His rendition of "I Love To Cry At Weddings," with David Ball as Marvin, had just the right amount of camp and humor needed to lighten the evening.
Blair and Martell

Jeremy Carver-James was great as the cool Daddy Brubeck, the leader of a beatnik Church that invites in Oscar and Charity."The Rhythm of Life" number led by Carver-James was a throw back to the musical HAIR and "Aquarius." The free love Church was full of hippies dancing through the streets in colorful costumes and wigs, and allowed Blair to shine as he awkwardly danced with the tribe

Carver-James in "The Rhythm of Life"

Choreographer Parker Esse's evocative dances were best realized in the production numbers. The lithe ensemble was up to the challenges of his Fosse-esque dance routines, must notably in the angular stylized movements of " Rich Man's Frug." Exquisite costumes (by Charlotte Dean) for this number in shades of black, white and silver included every mod 1960's outfit you have ever seen. The audience enjoyed this retro throwback in time.

"Rich Man's Frug"
Director Morris Panych ensured that the evening moved swiftly . He took full advantage of the multiple playing levels on the set. The final scene with Charity and Oscar was played for humor at first, but the underlying drama of the situation tugged at the heart strings for both of these sad characters who are struggling in life. Set designs by Ken MacDonald, with projections by Cameron Davis, were a triumph. In an age when projections have become overused to poor effect, often because of budgetary constraints, MacDonald has seamlessly integrated psychedelic 60's images and graphic patterns with his large center set piece that doubles as a catwalk, dance hall booths and most effectively as a subway car. One of the most striking scenes was at Coney Island while Charity and Oscar are suspended high above the stage in a ferris wheel car, with a stunning projection of the ferris wheel in the backgrond and clouds rolling by in front on a scrim. Paul Sportelli led the tight 17 piece orchestra, full of electric piano, electric guitar/bass and synthesizer sounds of that era.
SWEET CHARITY plays at the Shaw Festival in the Festival Theatre until October 31, 2015. Further information and tickets are available at SHAWFEST.COM or by calling 1-800-511-SHAW.
All production photos by Emily Cooper

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From This Author Michael Rabice