By Bill Beard
The first time I saw Sweet Charity was in 1967 at the Prince of Wales Theatre in London’s West End. I fell in love with the show, and with Juliet Prowse. A year or so later, I saw it on Broadway with the magnificent Gwen Verdon, and I fell for her, too. And in 1969, when the film came out with Shirley MacLaine, I once again fell in love with Neil Simon’s story and Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ score; but by that time, I was already in love with MacLaine, and had been since The Trouble with Harry, her first film in 1955.
Frankly, since those early days, I had seen only one other production of Sweet Charity that impressed me … that was Drury Lane Oak Brook’s brilliant success in the spring of 2008, starring the fantastic Summer Smart, who, at the time, I dubbed “the consummate Charity.”
So, I was eager to see the Timber Lake Playhouse production, which opened this past week and which plays through this coming Sunday, July 10. You guessed it — I’m in love again. With the show, the music, the dance, but most definitely, most assuredly, most passionately, with Ms. Alexandra E. Palkovic. One of Illinois’ own (Peoria and Western Illinois University), Ms. Palkovic is well on her way to becoming that triple threat all directors look for. She acts as well as she sings; she sings as well as she dances; and she dances almost flawlessly.
It’s as though she channels the best parts of Prowse, Verdon and MacLaine, adds her own abundant talent, and gives us a new and independent and very sweet Charity. Ms. Palkovic is a star.
But she is not the only one. The other brilliantly shining star this week at Timber Lake is the choreographer! The title page of the program states: “Original Choreography Re-Conceived By Tyler Sawyer Smith.” That credit appears just under the following statement: Sweet Charity on Broadway “Originally Conceived, Staged and Choreographed by Bob Fosse.”
Now, any theater-goer who loves musicals would recognize the work of the famous Fosse; his highly distinctive jazz style, which gave shows like Chicago, Cabaret, All That Jazz and especially Sweet Charity their excitement, their special energy, their unique appeal, is immediately recognizable, exuding a stylized, cynical sexuality.
And it certainly is not all that simple to replicate. But Mr. Smith (himself a gifted and accomplished dancer) manages not only to “re-conceive” Fosse’s signature style, he seems also to have inspired his ensemble (of varyingly trained and experienced dancers) to produce some truly mesmerizing choreography. His staging of “Rich Man’s Frug” is uncannily and fiercely Fosse-like! And his handling of Act II’s show-stopping opening, “Rhythm of Life,” in an entirely different style, is equally dynamic and exciting.
Perhaps the best-known number from this show is the bawdy, raunchy first ensemble number, “Hey, Big Spender!” Here again, Smith’s choreography is spot on, with Fosse’s signature moves; e.g., turned-in knees, rolled shoulders, sideways shuffling and the characteristic “hanging on the dance bar” poses by the “dime a dance dollies” at the Fandango Ballroom.
But here he had a fantastic bevy of taxi-dancer beauties to hang around, in an amazing collection of “hot-couture” costumes, about as sleazy and suggestive as designers Tate Ellis and Katy Freeman could conceive. [By the way, the superb black-and-white designs for “Rich Man’s Frug” were amazing!] Led by Julia Mitchell (amazing dancer) as Nickie and Daryn Harrell as Helene, and the versatile Kelsey Andres as Ursula (who later is phenomenal as Frug’s lead dancer, and whose acting I praised last week), these eight seductive honeys proceeded to proposition every man in sight, including the audience! But more importantly, they managed to maintain a precarious balance between the jaded desperation and the sentimental hope of these ill-fated faux femme fatales. Their raunchy rendition of “Big Spender” says it all; perfection.
Oh, yes. There are males in this show, too. And they are excellent. Patrick Connaghan is seductively sensual as film star Vittorio Vidal; Dryden Meints is bossy but soft inside as Fandango manager Herman (and manages to rise above the one unfortunate costume on stage); and Rockford College’s Andrew Harth is charmingly funny as Oscar, Charity’s would-be hero. He has the perfect quiet, elevator-shy lovability; however, his finale resistance rant just went so far over the top that we ended up glad to see him go. I’m sure the director will bring this back a bit. And maybe she can also give Charity a bit more time to register the final transition of emotions, which allows her to face the future and us to cheer her on.
Sometimes billed as a “tawdry look at the life of a dance hall hostess,” Sweet Charity is essentially the story of Charity Hope Valentine, a down-on-her-luck dance hall hostess holding on tight to her basic instinct that she can somehow find the promise of her own name. The plot follows very closely that of one of Fellini’s best films, The Nights of Cabiria, which starred the exquisite Giulietta Masina [yes, I also fell in love with her!]; but it is not an easy story to make into a typical, happy-go-lucky Broadway musical. It requires a strong hand at the artistic controls.
Fortunately, Artistic Director James Beaudry was wise enough to bring back the amazing Lili-Anne Brown, who directed last summer’s Spelling Bee. Along with Music Director Travis Horton, this directing team has created a show you should absolutely arrange right this moment to see this weekend.
It’s a lovely one-hour-plus drive through charming countryside to this top-notch summer theater in the woods near Mt. Carroll. Call now for information: (815) 244-2035, or go online at www.timberlakeplayhouse.com.
From the July 6-12, 2011, issue