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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The scrappy Barrington Stage Company has come a long way since launching itself with Lady Day at the Emerson Cafe, an intimate little cabaret show. Now Bob Ruggiero, who cleverly staged it in a site specific setting -- a bar in Housatonic -- is back to launch the company's 10th anniversary season with his snap, crackle and pop direction of the 1960s Broadway hit, Sweet Charity.
Ruggiero has plenty to work with, for Charity has all the elements that give a musical a life beyond its initial run ( Charity went on to a still available film version, a successful '80s Broadway revival, and will have a new Broadway outing financed by deep pocket producers Fran and Barry Weissler and Clear Channel Entertainment next April). The stylish dance routines were created by the legendary choreographer Bob Fosse. Its score is studded with catchy, memorable tunes by composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Dorothy Fields, many like "Big Spender" familiar even to people who never saw the show through recordings by popular vocalists. The book sparkles with dialogue studded with the prolific Neil Simon's trademark wisecracks (like the classic job description offered by a veteran hostess to a new arrival at the sleazy Fan-Dango Ballroom: "Who dances? We defend ourselves to music.")
As with past Barrington Stage musicals, don't expect jaw dropping theatrical pyrotechnics or big name stars. The razzmatazz of these musicals stems from the dedication and professionalism of all involved to bringing worthy shows back to vibrant life. That goes for director, choreographer, designers, performers and musicians.
As with any revival of a big Broadway vehicle, the cast always has the specter of the original performances to contend with. However, Barrington Stage has a knack for finding performers who, instead of trying to repeat past successes, simply jump into their parts with everything they've got. Thus Becka Ayers put her own delightful stamp on Cabaret's Sally Bowles and Jeanne Goodman triumphantly stepped into the Fanny Brice role of Funny Girl thought by many to be "owned" by Barbra Streisand. Like Ayers and Goodman, Valery Wright, need have no worries about not being Gwen Verdon (for whom Bob Fosse created the show) or Shirley McLane, the movie Charity. Her dancing, singing and the way she projects both determination and vulnerability make the aptly named Charity Hope Valentine as likeable and fun to watch a heroine as you could wish for.
Charity's quest for romance as a means of escaping her dead-end job as a dance hall hostess or taxi dancer is, of course, rather dated these days; but then it was never more than a feathery foundation for the sensuous music, dancing and atmosphere which, under Ruggiero's able direction, are all in tip-top shape. He's created an atmosphere of a city teeming with all sorts of life and the actors assembled to play the characters who enliven Charity's quest do justice to their roles. Mary MacLeod and Kenya Massey nail the cynicism of co-hostesses Nickie and Helene and are also in the ensemble numbers which comprise some of the show's highlights. Their "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" (with Charity) is a deserved show stopper.
Nat Chandler is amusing as the film star Vittorio Vidal with whom Charity has a date that lands her in his closet while he makes love to another woman. Karl Kenzler is endearingly eccentric as Oscar Lindquist whose group therapy session is short-circuited when he gets stuck in an elevator with Charity. He give at least reasonable credibility to the bittersweet ending resulting from his Romeo's having feet of clay.
Though I've already indicated that this isn't a technical bells and whistle laden production, neither is it lacking in pizzazz. Set designer Michael Anania's set cleverly evokes club railing where the hostesses try to entice the "Big Spenders." Props include an elevator, a phone booth and, during Charity and Oscar's first date at the Rhythm of Life "church, " there's a painted Volkswagon to add to the fun of this basically unnecessary but too much fun to eliminate scene (Bobby Daye playing Daddy Brubeck, the role for which Sammy Davis Jr. got equal billing in the movie despite being on for less than ten minutes). Tom Sturge's lighting adds to the effectiveness of the staging, as do Alejo Vietti's costumes.
Choreographer Ralph Perkins has done a fine job of recreating the Fosse dances, especially the terrific freeze and sing numbers like "Rich Man's Frug." A big hand too for Michael Morris and his band, well placed in a pit carved out of an apron at the front of the stage. Morris' arrangements are flavorful and the band's playing is lively but never too loud.
This show about a girl with a heart as big as Monument Mountain and unstoppable optimism is an especially fitting way to celebrate this small theatrical enterprise's continuing spirit of adventure. That adventurous spirit has brought us splendid revivals of popular hits like Cabaret A Little Night Music. and last summer a brand-new musical, The Game. Though that premiere has yet to find the further and longer life it deserves, this season will feature another musical premiere, 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee -- something of a double first, as it's the first musical for the Second Stage which has steadily gained the attention of savvy theater goers. I know there's more to see and do in the Berkshires than most people can fit into their schedules, but both this something old (Sweet Charity)- and something new ( 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) should get top priority on your must see and do list.
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