Sweet Charity, Music by Cy Coleman, Lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Book by Neil Simon, based on a concept by Bob Fosse and a film, "Nights of Cabiria" by Federico Fellini.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Without love life has no purpose."
Begin by changing Rome to New York City. Then soften the leading lady’s profession, downgrading it from streetwalker to dance hall hostess. Take out the offensive language so prevalent in the movie and add an offensively comic character, a hard-nosed man-of-business who softens around the topic of weddings. What do you end up with? A sweet musical based on Fellini’s "Nights of Cabiria" in the making, Cabiria now called Charity, Sweet Charity, now playing at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, New York.
Suffice it to say that this is a favorite, a gem, probably the best musical written by Cy Coleman with its hit tunes "Where Am I Going?" "Big Spender," "Baby Dream Your Dream," "There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This," and "The Rhythm of Life." Conceived and created by choreographer/director Bob Fosse for his then wife Gwen Verdon, this show brought the Palace Theatre back into being back in 1966. Oddly, much of it is still relevant today as young women with ambition but not much experience find themselves working in joints like the dance hall in the show in cities around the globe.
Charity, at the Mac-Haydn, is played by a young woman with enormous talent. She dances very well, sings very well, acts very well. Her name is Chelsea Gidden and she takes and holds the stage throughout the piece. Even when other talented performers are singing to her, our attention is riveted to Gidden and no one else. Andrea Doto as Helene and Kelly Uhl as Nickie beautifully sing and dance their hearts out around Gidden, but when she joins her pals, they simply turn into temporary scenery.
Even Ben Jacoby whose performances get better and better fades a bit when he sings with Gidden. He holds his own in the speaking scenes and even devastates the audience a bit in the final scene in Central Park. As Oscar Lindquist he is at the top of his form as an actor and his place in the play assures him attention. It is partially the eternal optimism of Charity, as played with full, unbelieving, self-deceiving stamina by Gidden, that takes his bad news moment away from him and gives it to her.
Jason Whitfield manages to hold his own with Gidden. He is the perfect Italian movie star, an anomaly remaining from the movie, self-possessed, vengeful, lusty and overly eager to please a fan. Ryan Michael Owens plays Herman with a meanness I am not used to seeing, but his meltdown at the end of the show is perhaps even finer for that harshness at the beginning. Jennifer Bishop does well as Carmen and Kendall Chaffee-Standish makes a delightful Ursula.
Fosse’s choreography has been revitalized by Jessica Lee Goldyn with more than just imitation in evidence. Corinne Walsh’s costumes are perfect for the characters and Andrew Bevacqua has made the set pieces fluid and firm enough to handle the sometimes hard physical actions.
Doug Hodge has directed this piece with precision and accuracy, which is good on the circular stage at this theater in the round. He has also given, and presumably pulled from his actors, the characters a reality that made their performances so sure and right.
This is a show that could profit from a trumpet and a clarinet or even just two pianos. Even so, this is one of the best shows this season at this theater and should not be missed.
Sweet Charity plays through August 9 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, located on Route 203 just north of the town center of Chatham, NY. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292 or on line at www.machaydntheatre.org.