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Sweet Charity flirts with questions about the sex industry

Aurora Theatre favors fun for lighthearted production of '60s Broadway classic

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Charity Hope Valentine, the title character of the musical Sweet Charity, identifies her career as "social consultant at the Fandango Ballroom." But "dance hall hostess" or "taxi dancer" more accurately describes her profession. An antiquated-sounding concept that still exists today, taxi dancers rent out their bodies as dance partners for men, usually charging by the song. Sweet Charity implies such work can be a gateway to prostitution, although Charity's just a hoofer, not a hooker.

Sweet Charity's creators drew inspiration from Federico Fellini's film Nights of Cabiria, about an actual prostitute with a heart of gold, although book writer Neil Simon, composer Cy Coleman, and lyricist Dorothy Fields took a tamer approach. Featuring the famous come-on "Hey Big Spender," Sweet Charity offered Broadway of the 1960s a musical that's kind of about the sex industry, but not really. Aurora Theatre brings an enormous level of energy and invention to its production of Sweet Charity without resolving some of its internal contradictions and dated qualities.

Rebecca Simon plays Charity, a hopeless romantic with lousy judgment. In the opening scene she serenades her latest boyfriend, Charlie, who promptly steals her purse and pushes her into a lake. Trent Blanton portrays all of Charity's boyfriends, from taciturn cad Charlie to Italian movie star Vittorio to neurotic nice guy Oscar. Blanton brings both a resounding singing voice and a graceful physical presence to each of his roles, but also meets the characters' comedic demands.

Simon generates plenty of moxie as Charity, emitting little squeals and coos when in the arms of her latest fella. But Charity seems hard-boiled, like her more sardonic friend Nickie (Caroline Freedlund). Charity's solos such as "If My Friends Could See Me Now" should come across as effervescent, but feel a little forced and desperate, as if Charity's trying to convince herself that she's happy. Such traits suit the character's age and predicament, but belong in a production more focused on the cynicism and darkness at the edges of the story.

The Aurora production proves to be more of a romp. Dad's Garage Theatre co-founder Sean Daniels directs nine actors in the show, while Sweet Charity can easily accommodate a cast twice as big. The reduction becomes a quick-change showcase for Jimi Kocina, who switches between dozens of New York characters, from snooty waiters to supportive milkmen. In the show's comedic highlight, Kocina, as the Fandango's crusty owner, launches into "I Always Cry At Weddings" initially with a gravelly singing style reminiscent of Jimmy Durante, and culminating with physical comedy worthy of Martin Short.

Aurora's ensemble amusingly simulates big city crowds, while "The Rich Man's Frug," a largely wordless dance at a glitzy nightclub, perfectly captures the 1960s' silliest qualities: It's like an outtake from a Blake Edwards comedy with a Henry Mancini soundtrack. The story's heart, however, lies in numbers like "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," when Charity and her fellow dancers express their desires to escape their disheartening job. In such scenes, as well as the emotionally honest finale, Sweet Charity hints at the social stigma of and difficulties in leaving the sex industry — or a profession that's very similar. Mostly, however, Sweet Charity dances around the issue.

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