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Sweet Charity – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theare, Peoria

Charity poster

By the mid-60’s, even though dancer, director and choreographer Bob Fosse already had several big shows on his resume, it was his 1966 production of Sweet Charity that truly brought him back into the public eye, reinstating him on the theatrical pedestal from which he had temporarily fallen.

Troubles began in 1961 when he was replaced as director/choreographer in the musical The Conquering Hero.  Then, in order to pay the bills, he quickly followed by taking a job as choreographer-for-hire in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.  It wasn’t until after two more less than successful ventures – one as a co-choreographer, the other as director/choreographer of a failed show that closed out-of-town before Broadway – that Sweet Charity came along, and everything changed.

With a memorably tuneful score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields and a witty Neil Simon book, Fosse’s Sweet Charity is often described as a vanity musical.  Inspired by the 1957 black and white Fellini drama, Nights of Cabiria, Fosse and his wife with the flaming red hair, celebrated dancer and muse to her husband’s creative excesses, the fabulous Gwen Verdon, together adapted the story of the prostitute in Rome who looked with little hope for true love and re-designed the plot as a vehicle to get them back where they both belonged; on Broadway.  On opening night, when Broadway’s Palace Theatre curtain rose, the gamble paid off: Audiences roared with immediate approval at the first silhouetted sight of Verdon in that now famous Charity pose with the flexed, high-heeled foot.  Theatre history was immediately made and the show hadn’t even begun.

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If that same opening doesn’t receive quite the same, ecstatic response on the Arizona Broadway Theatre stage in Peoria, what follows deserves to come pretty close for all the following reasons.

Choosing wisely to use the show as a nostalgia piece for the 60’s – something that several productions in the past decade have ignored, instantly making Neil Simon’s funny book sound dusty – on the wide ABT stage, proudly celebrating its sixties origins in its design and its references, Sweet Charity suddenly feels somehow fresh again.

Liz Fallon as Charity Hope Valentine, the ever-hopeful taxi dancer of the Fandango Ballroom, charms the moment she starts to talk.  With a constant upbeat clarity of voice that constantly sounds as if she’s smiling, Fallon may not appear as slender as some of her previous Sweet Charity counterparts, but she dances with the agility of an experienced hoofer incorporating all of those signature Bob Fosse moves – the rolled shoulders, the sideways shuffle, those jazz hands – and sings with the muscle of a Broadway belter.  Those in the back row will have no trouble.

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Director M. Seth Reines has made good choices throughout.  While some regional productions chose to trim songs, update references and even use a new dirge of a melody from the ’69 movie, Reines’ production does what ABT does well; it ignores the trends of newly imagined revivals and sticks as closely as possible to the original.  Not only is that a good decision, it becomes the strength of the show.

Choreographer Kurtis W. Overby does the same thing.  Rather than do what happened with the Christine Applegate 2005 revival where the dance routines were redesigned with just a flavor of Fosse, Overby incorporates as much of the original as possible, and the large, capable cast rise to the demanding challenge.  The musical highlights are many, including the Bach inspired Rhythm of Life, Liz Fallon’s delightful solo, If My Friends Could See Me Now, the spectacular and exciting I’m A Brass Band, and the epitome of everything Fosse created, Big Spender.  When those horns blast and those less than dainty ladies of the Fandango slink towards us and wrap themselves around the railing, often referred to as the meat-rack, beckoning the next customer to spend a little time with them, Overby has really done his job.  In the silences of the song, and the powerful, dead-pan manner of the ladies, all of whom would rather be somewhere else, the effect is one hundred percent Fosse.

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Only Geof Eroe’s overall scenic design, based on the colorfully psychedelic inspired shapes of sixties graphic artist Peter Max that decorates the proscenium arch and frames the production, differs from the ’66 original.  With the effective, cartoonish look of bendy buildings permanently on display in the background, the New York City skyline takes on the comical appearance of how it might appear to someone in the early stages of a 60’s acid trip.

For whatever reason, the Saturday night audience sounded hesitant when responding to the humor.  Even the funny, sketch-like episode where Charity and a panicked Oscar (an appropriately ordinary Andy Meyers, just as he should be) are stuck in a YMCA elevator failed to get the laughs, despite Neil Simon’s punchy dialog.  Perhaps, depending on your birth date, Sweet Charity has aged to the point where not everyone is going to get it.  Yet with every production number, including the intentionally corny love ballad, Too Many Tomorrows – a song cut from the film – a huge applause and a chorus of approving cheers always followed.

When you leave the show, it’s the excitement of the dance numbers and Liz Fallon’s winning personality you’ll remember the most.  Shirley MacLaine’s movie Charity, which lost so much money it almost closed Universal, cried way too much.  Liz’s innocent and upbeat Charity, who appears throughout in a short, black dress, just as Bob Fosse always demanded of the character, makes you believe she really will live hopefully ever after.

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Rounding off the overall experience of the evening, the music played in the house while you eat are all well-known pop hits of the 60’s, plus look for fun sounding featured drinks created to compliment the show, including the Rich Man’s Frug – named after another terrific musical highlight and a special martini mix called The Fan-Dango.

 For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ABT website.

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