Sweet Charity

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Jared Hussey as Oscar, Jill Miller as Charity; Photo by Gary Bolen

By Philip Pearce

SWEET CHARITY, now playing on MPC’s Morgan Stock Stage, is a period piece with an attitude. The period is 1960s Manhattan Island and the attitude is cynicism. It’s a show with a brassy score by Cy Coleman and wry lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Its plot has no use for tender moments, love duets or happy surprises. Its Neil Simon script sends up American vanity and hopelessness with biting irony.

Created on Broadway for the glorious Gwen Verdon with a story based on a Fellini movie starring the incomparable Giulietta Masini, it’s all so skillfully crafted you almost forget what a dark and dangerous world it occupies, or would, if it weren’t for its lead character, Charity Hope Valentine. Charity is a chronically optimistic taxi dancer in a sleazy Broadway ballroom who blithely surmounts sordid surroundings and repeated mishaps like a wild rose blossoming in a field of toxic weeds. She manages to look sweet and hopeful even at the beginning of the evening when she’s being fished out of a Central Park lake she has just been shoved into by a matrimonially challenged boyfriend.

It’s a role that makes big demands on a leading lady, and MPC’s Jill Miller is a supple, funny and enchanting Charity. She knows how to sing beautifully, dance excitingly and create a convincing comic character. Her Charity is quite capable of anger at being part of the nightly cattle call of Fan Dango Ballroom dance hostesses (“There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”.) Strong in heart if no intellectual whiz, she is frequently uncertain and confused (“Where Am I Going?”.) Where a lesser performer might be tempted to slip in little bits of crowd-pleasing self-pity, Miller shows us a woman who dives headlong into life from an unbeatable sense that there are hopeful options up ahead amid all the murk and confusion if only she can discover them. “Hope,” after all, is her middle name. A final caption held up beside her end-of-show tableau reads “And She Lived Hopefully Ever After.”

On the heels of her Central Park rescue, Charity gets excitedly caught up in a quarrel between a superficial, fur-coated socialite named Ursula and an Italian movie heartthrob called Vittorio Vidal. Spiting Ursula, Vittorio takes the starry-eyed Charity first to a nightclub and then (“If My Friends Could See Me Now”) to his apartment. She spends the night, not as it turns out, in his bed but hiding in his clothes closet while he is making it up between the sheets with the apologetic Ursula. James Brady plays the aging matinee idol with a suave self-absorption that is quietly funny and uses a pleasing if untrained tenor to navigate the ins and outs of a spoof- romantic ballad called “Too Many Tomorrows.” Stumbling from the closet at daybreak, Charity tiptoes blithely back to the ballroom to display souvenirs of her night between the overcoats.

IN CONTRAST to her charitable sweetness, just about everybody else in the cast of characters operates from some corner of a Brechtian hopelessness. As the two ballroom sidekicks Nickie and Helene, Nicole West and Corinne Walker are a wonderfully comic pair of fleet-footed, gum-chewing realists. Like two other hostesses, Suzanne and Cha Cha, (Phyllis Davis and Katie Day), who offer a musical sneer at the “spoon-June-honeymoon” world of conventional musical comedy romance called Baby, Dream Your Dreams, these are women who hate what they do but are imbedded so deep in it they can no longer change or fight back. Not to mention the snarls and threats of John G. Bridges as the Fan Dango’s slimy and raucous boss-man Herman. I was regretting that the musically gifted Bridges seemed involved only in singing along in the big chorus numbers till he burst into a piercing and hilarious Act Two solo called “I Love to Cry at Weddings.”

Things change for Charity when, bent on taking some self-improvement classes at the 92nd Street YMCA, she gets stuck in an elevator with a nice but neurotic guy named Oscar Lindquist. Jared Hussey, always energetic and sporting an impressive tenor voice, is amusing in Oscar’s struggles to disguise his claustrophobic terror and restart the stalled elevator. Charity’s cheery efforts to calm him set off what looks to be a nice Second Act dream romance, but… Well, it’s better to see for yourself.

Director Gary Bolen shows particular skill and imagination in dealing with groups and crowds who interract but retain their discernable differences as people. I particularly enjoyed a scene in which a rectangle of actors squeeze together to create a moving subway car which Charity and Oscar enter and ride through a succession of Manhattan subway stops. A brass sextet, ably directed by Stephen Tosh, offers plenty of blare and beat to the musical score.

It’s a stunning-looking show with sets that shift seamlessly between nightclub and restaurant interiors and New York landmarks ranging from a church revival meeting in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge to the parachute jump concession at Coney Island. The wheeled units and scrim backdrops are the work of D. Thomas Beck, better known as Dan, whose retirement after more than forty years as MPC Theatre’s technical director, is the subject of Bolen’s director’s notes in the program. Noting that products of Beck’s scenery shop have come to be known as “BEK TEK,” Gary Bolen asks, “How do you replace a person who requires a new language to describe? The answer is, ‘You don’t.’” The MPC Board of Trustees, he writes, have approved “a replacement for the position because you simply cannot replace the man. This theatre, especially since the 2013 renovation, is inextricably entwined with Dan.”

Sweet Charity continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 until July 19th.