Thalian Association closes their season with an ovation-standing production of “Sweet Charity.” The original creative team behind the show reads like the art all-stars. The show is based upon a movie by Frederico Fellini, “Nights of Cabiria” (produced by local Screen Gems Studio founder Dino de Laurentiis) and adapted for the stage by Neil Simon, with music by Cy Coleman (“The Will Rogers Follies”) and lyrics by Dorothy Fields (“Annie Get Your Gun”). To top it off, the incomparable Bob Fosse directed and choreographed the original production (and corresponding movie).
But Wilmington has no dearth of talent, and if you are going to produce a show famously directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, Judy Greenhut is the perfect choice to recreate the magic on stage here. Boy, does she ever make magic!
Charity Hope Valentine (Kendra Goehring-Garrett) is a taxi dancer who wears her heart on her sleeve. An eternal optimist, she falls in love blindly—and her track record with men reflects as much. In “You Should See Yourself,” she serenades her latest fiancé while he stoically sits and listens … up until the moment he tries to drown her and steal her purse.
Nevertheless, Charity refuses to believe he robbed her and tried to kill her. She returns to the Fandango Dance Hall, where she works as a taxi dancer, and defends him to her coworkers. None of them are buying it, especially Nikki (Alissa Fetherolf) and Helene (Madison Moss), Charity’s friends. Their intervention with Charity is cut short by the arrival of a customer looking for a dance partner. The dancers move to the bar for a rendition of “Big Spender” that will leave audiences’ mouth dry, it is so riveting. The women have been at this for a while, but they are still professionals with a job to do and money to earn, in order to eat. The number blends an available sexuality with a detached and cynical attitude of someone used to the auction block and all it entails. Along with Helene’s comment that she is in the “rent-a-body business,” it is the closest the script gets to making it clear that Charity’s story is the classic of a hooker with a heart of gold.
Though, in Fellini’s film, there is no doubt Cabiria is a prostitute. With Fetherolf’s Nikki and Moss’ Helene the hardened, world-weary and much cooler best friends appear (think of Rizzo in “Grease” or Kit De Luca in “Pretty Woman”). In “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” the three of them deliver a hymn to the possibility of life beyond the hand of cards they have been dealt. It’s not an uncommon trope in musical theatre (think Audrey’s “Somewhere That’s Green” in “Little Shop of Horrors”). It is almost heartbreaking how quickly the girls lose their resolve when their boss, Herman (Kim Ewonus), calls them back to work.
Except Charity. Goehring-Garrett gives us the journey a woman discovering her own strength. Each moment with Charity is a true moment of discovery for both Charity and the audience; she is slowly, realizing there are steps she can take to make her life different. One is to explore more of the world than she has encountered. Maybe she could take a night class. It leads her to the Y where she meets Oscar Lindquist (Brenton Schraff), a tax accountant with a variety of neuroses (Neil Simon did write the book after all; we couldn’t escape his favorite stock characters). He is attracted to Charity from the moment he meets her but is also terrified of her. As fate would have it, they get trapped in an elevator together.
Set designer Benedict Fancy has created a wonderful world for the all performers to explore, but the stylized contained world of the elevator is my favorite. Not only is it beautiful and stylish, like many public buildings in Manhattan at the time, it creates a contained space for the two gifted comedians to ply their craft. Boy do they ever. I laughed so hard I cried.
Schraff played Robert Kincaid, the ultimate suave artistic hunk, in Thalian Association’s “Bridges of Madison County.” Oscar is a real departure: to see him as insecure and neurotic. But he sells it and displays acres of comedic talent, especially in the diner scene with Goehring-Garrett. It is Neil Simon run amok.
Actually, Fancy’s version of New York blends the elements of the play really well. The gritty, seamier underside of New York that Charity inhabits contrasts the beautiful, clean, light world he shows her—like the ferris wheel, which is quite cleverly depicted. Of course he maintains the signature streetlight everyone expects to see.
Additionally, Jen Iapalucci’s costumes are a visual delight! Obviously she makes all the girls enjoyable to see, but the real achievement is how she handles the huge crowd scenes. For both “Rich Man’s Frug” and “The Rhythm of Life,” she gets close to two dozen people in appropriate but individualized costumes that are fascinating.
“The Rhythm of Life” church service that Charity and Oscar attend on a date, under the Manhattan Bridge, is led by Daddy Brubeck (Kevin Lee-y Green). It is a wonderful satire of the hippie culture of the time—and, frankly, it easily convinced me if Green ever gives up working as a choreographer, he has a bright future as a charismatic cult leader (I’d join.) It is a striking contrast to the “Rich Man’s Frug,” which takes place at the posh Pompeii Club. Charity happens to be a guest of the famous film star Vittorio Vidal (Nick Williams) as a result of Vidal having a terrible fight with his girlfriend, Ursula (Amy Carter), outside the club. “The Frug” is pure Fosse-stylized dance and communicates volumes about social hierarchy, expectations, and consequences. It is the Cliff’s Notes to understanding the world Charity has just dropped into.
As Williams’ Vidal notes, Charity is comfortable wherever she lands: She is guileless and charmed by everyone. Williams and Carter add wonderful contrast as the crème de la crème whose problems are just as engulfing mentally and emotionally as the proletarians of the ensemble. They sing beautifully, but rousing songs like Kim Ewonus’ “I Love to Cry at Weddings” is what will leave audiences humming for days.
The entire cast is on fire in a show that is a rollicking good time. Truly, though, Kendra Goehring-Garrett sells the role like none other. Every time, she opens her mouth I couldn’t help but laugh; she plays the farce very well. Combined with stunning dance moves and show-stopping voice, the proverbial triple threat brings down the house. It’s a role that requires the actress to genuinely grow, so when Oscar lets her down (as men facing marriage usually do in Neil Simon stories—the man has been married five times), Charity’s resilience in the face of loss is believable.
We genuinely believe she will make her own way and build a better life—and she will do it with a smile. The production of “Sweet Charity” is truly a delight fueled by remarkable performances, fabulous design and an incredibly clear vision of Judy Greenhut.