Addison — Explosive energy tightly coiled into the bodies of a sophisticated ensemble of dancers in tailored white costumes fills the stage at the ritzy Pompeii Club. The ten men and women, their torsos angled 40 degrees, elongate their necks, thrust their pelvises in hyper-close formation, and mock-punch their way through a scintillating rendition of “Rich Man’s Frug.” Wow. This glam nightspot smolders in the middle of Sweet Charity, directed and choreographed with smart pacing by Michael Serrecchia at WaterTower Theatre.
The signature piece of Bob Fosse-style choreography, one of Serrecchia’s mentors, is one of several standout dance numbers in the 1966 musical with a book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The original show, based on the Fellini film Nights of Cabiria, starred Gwen Verdon and was choreographed by Fosse, who also directed the film adaptation starring Shirley MacLaine. Fellini’s heroine is a whimsically hopeful Italian prostitute. In the musical, Charity Hope Valentine (Whitney Hennen) is a veteran dancer-for-hire at the Fandango Ballroom in New York, who has somehow retained a sweetly innocent optimism and a head full of dreams about a romantic lover who’ll one day appear, whisk her away from the smoky dance hall and into a thrilling, happily-ever-after marriage. Where do you get a gal like that? WaterTower has almost figured it out.
The comedy and dance numbers in the show are built around the contrast between the reality of a taxi dancer’s sleazy livelihood and the title character’s romantic fantasies. Charity is a difficult character for any actor to inhabit. As one sister-in-dance puts it, she runs her heart like a hotel: “You got guys checkin’ in and out all the time.” Charity must exude wide-eyed innocence and expert comic timing to get Neil Simon’s situational jokes and playful dialogue across. She also has to deliver the goods in all the demanding dance numbers, from bawdy and raucous to svelte and sophisticated.
Hennen is an attractive, accomplished dancer, and her height and long legs are stunning, especially in profile freezes. She’s believable as a not-too-bright dance hostess with a good heart, a gal who blames her hard luck in the romance department on “the fickle finger of fate.” She projects real showgirl bravado singing “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” expertly wielding a top hat and cane. But that’s it. With her set smile and hard-eyed, get-the-job done determination, she sings “I’m the Bravest Individual” with Mama Rose attitude. Perhaps it was opening night nerves, but there’s not much innocent whimsy in Hennen’s Charity, and that takes a vital edge off a performance that begs for at least a bit of waif hesitancy.
Whitten’s best dramatic scenes are her romantic encounters with the celebrated Italian movie idol Vittoria Vidal and the shy accountant Oscar Lindquist, both played by Luke Longacre, an actor with a pitch-perfect ear for Neil Simon’s comic angst.
Appealing with a mustache in the bedroom or in full panic attack mode on an elevator, Longacre hits the comic high notes in the show. A tall man with a round face and wistful eyes, Lundquist’s Oscar is the embodiment of a Neil Simon shy guy literally forced into an embrace when he gets trapped with Charity on the elevator at the 42nd Street Y. Panting in a claustrophobic attack, his long frame wavers helplessly as he gradually falls to his knees, clutching Charity’s knees and howling a hilarious primal scream. Poor bastard; he’s so funny!
The taxi dancers at the Fandango are nicely raunchy in the show’s smoldering, provocative “Big Spender” as they line up across the stage, each woman pitching her particular goods and style to the men trolling the ballroom, looking for a fast dance—maybe more. Tall and willowy, or muscular and curvy, the women aggressively strut their stuff in tight, bright costumes designed by Derek Whitener and Victor Newman Brockwell.
Christopher Pickart’s effective set design features giant receding arches lit with stage bulbs encompassing the stage and including a balcony for Mark Mullino’s hip five-man orchestra, doubling as the druggy band in “The Rhythm of Life,” a wild and crazy spoof of a cultish hippie church where Oscar takes Charity on a dubious date. Jason Foster’s elegant lighting design shifts the scene to a swank nightclub or a Coney Island boardwalk.
Swift on-and-off rollout props create a bedroom, a street café or a dressing room for the gals to rest and gab—and they have some stories to tell. Kia Boyer is a wonderfully funny, weary-voiced Nickie, and Lindsay Longacre is a feisty handful of sarcasm as Helene, two well-worn Fandango regulars bemoaning the groping, bumbling men on the floor, and imagining comically ordinary alternative careers in “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.”
Despite a couple of songs that get a little long, and a fragile love story that wavers a bit in the blustering and bravado of a dance hall, this Sweet Charity has its rewards, not the least of which is a talented ensemble of singers and dancers.
» Read our interview with Whitney Hennen