Attach the name “Bob Fosse” to anything, and it’s about as close as you can get to a guarantee that a musical play will be a surefire hit. It’s certainly the case with “Sweet Charity”, with the Shaw Festival staging this ’60s romp for their 2015 season. With music by Cy Coleman and Fosse in charge of the conception, staging and choreography (Parker Esse does the choreography for this production), all the pieces are in place to hit “go” and let it run on its own power.
Then again, it would have helped if director Morris Panych had picked a cast member or two with enough gravitas to really anchor the play. There’s nothing wrong with the actors he worked with, only that their performances contribute to a “Sweet Charity” that feels more like cotton candy than a brownie. While the actual story of “Sweet Charity” isn’t as dark or heavy as Shaw’s previous Fosse go-around with last year’s “Cabaret”, there are still some weighty themes to tackle, like the emotional effects on a woman who’s paid to dance in skimpy clothing with men for money.
Julie Martell is the Sweet Charity in this play, with the first half of her name foisted on her by her neurotic beau, Oscar (Kyle Blair). She hasn’t exactly had the best luck with romances, with the first one we see tipping her into a pond and rummaging through her purse and the next, a dashing Italian movie star by the name of Vittorio Vidal (Mark Uhre), offering a sweet memory of a lifetime but no depth or commitment. Somehow, through every bit of heartbreak and disappointment, Charity manages to still see good in the world, fulfilling the prophecy of her middle name, Hope.
She’s got sort of friends by her side in the form of her Fandango Dance Hall colleagues, Nickie (Kimberley Rampersad) and Helene (Melanie Phillipson), whose hard edges can’t permeate Charity’s sweet nature. Even Herman (Jay Turvey), the owner of the Fandango, has a soft spot for her, throwing a lovely goodbye party that belies his crusty nature and “shadd-UP!” lines. At one point, it seems like Charity really does have the sort of future she’s long dreamt of, with Oscar’s multi-phobic nature somehow balancing her’s out. Blair does a fantastic job with his character, portraying him with all the nervousness and claustrophobia required without veering into caricature territory.
Unfortunately, what stops this play from reaching the heights it’s so capable of are the little things. Martell as Sweet Charity is good and nice and pleasant, but she doesn’t garner as much sympathy or relating to as could have been. Part of this is her singing voice, which, again, is good and nice and pleasant, but lacking in an inner steeliness she’d need to have been a dancer for eight years and still keep up hope. The other part of this is being surrounded by actors who aren’t quite able to deliver strong performances emotionally, making for an all-around troupe that’s missing weight to create a strong frame of reference.
The lack of finely-tuned comedic timing from Martell is another aspect that holds back “Sweet Charity”. While Blair’s Oscar and Uhre’s Vittorio absolutely kill it with their quippy lines, Martell’s delivery of dialogue is just ever so slightly off the mark, making it feel a tad forced. It’s almost like she delivers a line and then winks at the audience, instructing us that there was a joke hidden in there.
But taking your attention off that is Ken McDonald’s set design, who once again outdoes himself in terms of creativity and placement. Scenes change in the blink of an eye with scaffolding working overtime as the New York subway system, a bridge in Central Park, the Fandango Dance Hall and other locales, showing that it’s not necessarily what you have that matters, but how you use it. Below deck, the orchestra, led by musical director Paul Sportelli, is strong, clear and consistent, and if it were an actor, it could very well be the anchor this play so desperately needs.
You’ll have a hard time not enjoying this Shaw production, but you’ll also have a hard time remembering it next week. It’s not that “Sweet Charity” had holes to begin with, but that the ensemble just isn’t the exact right mix to send it over the top.