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Have Some Fun, Laughs & Good Times with Sweet Charity
By Genevieve Salamone and Jennifer C. Roller
Sweet Charity, the racy, fun and energetic story about a hopelessly romantic dance hall girl in the late ‘60s comes alive on stage at Gateway Playhouse, playing now through August 19 in Bellport.
The show is filled with exciting dance numbers, soulful songs and raunchy antics – all which make for an undoubtedly enjoyable theatre experience. Musical Director Fred Barton assembled a terrific group of musicians to accompany the high-energy musical, and an especially powerful brass section, of which is imperative in interpreting a song like “Big Spender”.
Playing the lead of Charity Hope Valentine (no wonder the kid is a romantic) and making her Gateway debut, is Kiira Schmidt. Schmidt brings a world of experience to Sweet Charity, which is evident in her fun, upbeat dancing – and Charity does quite a bit of it. The audience spends plenty of time with Charity, as we watch her search for someone to love her and take care of her, and we can empathize with her very human trait of wanting to be loved.
Although Charity just can’t seem to find Mr. Right, it’s certainly not for lack of trying, as some new beau or another seems to always be waltzing in and out of her life. Schmidt’s girlish appearance lends an air of innocence to her Charity, even though Charity is, in reality, a prostitute. It’s no wonder that a Molly Ringwald look-alike was cast as Charity, since the National Tour of Sweet Charity is now the home of the ex-Breakfast Club-er. Kiira Schmidt’s unique voice and over-the-top emotions illustrate the genuine, wide-eyed characteristics of a girl trying to make her mark on a big city. We witness her interactions with foreign film star Vittorio Vidal, played by the ultra smooth Steven Ted Beckler, and Charity’s silly exploration of his plush room…and closet, as she performs “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” adding a different souvenir accessory before every reprise.
Charity’s cohorts in crime include Leah Sprecher, who plays Nickie, a fellow hooker at The Fandango club. Sprecher was last on the Gateway stage during its production of 42nd Street, and returns to lend her powerhouse voice to Sweet Charity. April Nixon as Helene brings a measure of maturity to the trio, sort of the “mother hen” of the group. The girls’ rendition of “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” showcased each girl’s booming voice and graceful jazz techniques as they imagined their lives beyond the dance hall.
Paul Castree’s neurotic portrayal of Oscar, the cute yet dorky claustrophobic accountant who succeeds in winning Charity’s heart the old-fashioned way, adds a nice bit of reality to the climate of this sex-driven show. Castree’s vocals were clean and hearty, adding a nice tenor to the mix, and leaving us wishing we could have heard him sing more!
The Bob Fosse inspired choreography, especially in the “Rich Man’s Frug” was perfectly executed as the talented dancers “slinked and smoked” their way through the exhausting number. Every time the audience applauded in anticipation of the end of the dance, the cast just started right back up with another visually stimulating movement or formation. The male dancers were particularly impressive during this number as they kept a lit cigarette in their mouths during the whole dance. Director and Choreography Reviver Mitzi Hamilton paid much homage to the original production, first created for Tony Award-winning actress Gwen Verdon by her brilliant choreographer husband, Bob Fosse.
“Big Spender”, the third scene showstopper, and the first really impressive number in the show, was classically recreated, as the line of women, sparkling and shining in their fabulously colorful dresses, held true to their individual characters, bringing incredible energy and humor to the piece.
‘Charity’ Is Latest Great At Gateway
by Lee Davis
The question arises: Why does every one of the productions at the Gateway in Bellport look so splendid this year? Is it the truly creative and tasteful set designs of Kelly Tighe? Are the powers at the Gateway spending more money on their productions, and does that free up casting director Robin Joy Allan to hire uniformly knockout casts?
Whatever, the Gateway’s current production of “Sweet Charity,” the Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields/Neil Simon/Bob Fosse musical romp, is a joyful, tuneful, dazzlingly danced delight that looks like a million. Maybe a million and a half.
What severely diminished the 2005 Christina Applegate revival of “Sweet Charity” on Broadway was the astonishing error of putting a non-dancer and non-singer in the lead. Though Ms. Applegate was charming and courageous, she could never cut it in the role that was written expressly for Gwen Verdon in 1966. (For a while, when Christina Applegate injured herself and Charlotte D’Amboise stepped in, some of the echoes arose, but only temporarily.)
No, “Sweet Charity” is primarily a star vehicle, and a gigantically demanding one—Charity Hope Valentine, the central character, is offstage for only one short act two number, presumably to avail herself of an oxygen tank. And, of course, whoever takes on the role should be primarily a dancer—a gigantically talented dancer.
And at the Gateway, that star, that dancer and that supremely charismatic presence at the heart and soul of this “Sweet Charity” is on stage. If Kiira Schmidt doesn’t find a starring role on Broadway soon it will be the fault of a dearth of roles for her, not because she isn’t ready for it. From her first characteristic Bob Fosse pose through the punishing parade of one blockbuster number after another, Ms. Schmidt shines, shimmers and struts as if she owns the stage and the role. Which she does.
This is aided mightily by three production decisions: First, the Gateway has eschewed the 2005 “ improvements” and returned to the deliriously wonderful 1966 original version. Second, it’s hired Mitzi Hamilton to direct and inspire this production and to revive with precise and inventive detail the original Bob Fosse choreography.
And third, the Gateway has peopled this “Sweet Charity” with a large, dynamite supporting cast of splendid dancers and super singers. More this terrific musical could not wish for.
In a way, this all adds up to a bittersweet entertainment, as each dynamic and fiercely original Bob Fosse signature dance number explodes, as each Cy Coleman tune powers and illuminates its place in the show, as the wonderful wit of the Dorothy Fields lyrics and Neil Simon’s book informs the music and the dancing and the singing. There is an undeniable sense of the loss of the concordance that once happened (but can never happen again) when these great creative talents fused into the making of a show that fairly flew off the stage upon which it occurred.
In Bellport, Ms. Hamilton has captured and relaunched all of this, as has musical director Fred Barton. Both have mined the wit within the music, the lyrics, the book and the characters, and it all shines in a witty and wonderful evening of dynamic entertainment.
Every production number—from the comic grit of “Hey, Big Spender” to the stylized camp of the “Rich Man’s Frug” and the hippie lifestyle of the eruptive “Rhythm of Life” powered by the gospel energy of Richard W. Waits, to the roof raising exuberance of “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “I’m a Brass Band”—is nonstop invention and fun and, what is most important, informed wit.
The supporting cast is, to a person, worthy of cheers. The impressive ensemble is high flying and carries off the Fosse struts and poses with the sort of elan the master choreographer, now channeled through Mitzi Hamilton, made his eternal trademark.
Ira Denmark lets fly in a character that is usually a caricature, Herman, the boss at the dance hall, when he makes of “I Love To Cry at Weddings” his own 11 o’clock number. Paul Castree is a sweet and sweet voiced Oscar Lindquist, Charity’s neurotic hope for a husband. Steven Ted Beckler is a rich voiced matinee idol in the Italian lover sendup role of Vittorio Vidal.
Charity’s two dance hall sidekicks, given their own spots in the spotlight in “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and the lovely “Dream a Dream,” are done to riotous turns by April Nixon and Leah Sprecher.
And then there is the luminous Kiira Schmidt, bringing, via Ms. Hamilton’s inspired direction and choreography, the ghosts of both Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse to the stage of the Gateway.
Kelly Tighe’s ingenious set of lighted, brightly hued sliding panels keeps the evening bright and moving, and Kim Hanson’s carnival lights are a plus, too.
In sum, this “Sweet Charity” is a joyous and tuneful way to spend a hot summer night. For once, at the press opening, the standing ovation in Bellport went beyond the automatic. In fact, it would have been deserving if the cheering crowd had begun to tear up the seats.
Review: Sweet Charity at the Gateway Playhouse
by Ray Bradbrook
Taking a lead role in a revival of a musical that had been conceived with one person in mind must be one of the most daunting assignments for any actor or actress. That said, Kiira Schmidt does a wonderful job of recreating the role of Charity Hope Valentine which Gwen Verdon’s husband, the legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, created for Verdon on Broadway back in the 60s. Even though Fosse’s iconoclastic choreography is dominant in the show, the music, by Cy Coleman with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and a witty book by another legend, Neil Simon, meld together to produce a true “Broadway” musical that, alas, seems almost extinct today.
Kiira Schmidt portrays Charity, a dance hall “hostess” with an appealingly realistic blend of ingenuousness and belief that something good and lasting is going to come into her life. She almost seems to live by Candide’s thesis that “Everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds,” especially when it comes to men! Her colleagues at the rundown Fandango Ballroom know better. These ladies are the epitome of worldly cynicism – “Been there, seen it, done it, and got the tee-shirt!” One of the great moments in the show is when they declaim “Hey Big Spender,” lounging along a dance barre in various seductive postures and looking and sounding like a horde of predators. This is a very difficult number to perform and the crispness and precision were great. The same goes for another Fosse classic, “Rich Man’s Frug,” where the whole troupe of men and women dancers strut their stuff in that angular, sexy Fosse style. Again, a number that can go horribly wrong because it really needs precise dancing from all of the troupe, was wonderful and a great tribute to the work of Mitzi Hamilton, the Director and Choreographer, especially with only two weeks of rehearsal time.
Charity opens the show by being dumped, literally, by her current loser boyfriend, who leaves her to drown and walks away with her purse and savings. Thankfully she is eventually rescued, and goes back to her work, her cynical colleagues, and her dreams. Running into someone, again literally, is a proven method of introduction in many musicals and this is how she meets aging film star Vittorio Vidal, effortlessly played by Steven Ted Beckler. After an evening acting as a substitute for Vittorio’s temperamental girlfriend, she ends up in his apartment where she muses about “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” We realize that Charity is not all pure and simple, as she makes it clear to Vittorio that she would be happy to recompense him for her evening out – no holds barred – but in the end, Vittorio’s glamorous girl, Ursula, a blond bombshell, played by Murisa Harber, comes back to him, leaving Charity hiding in the closet waiting for the end of a long and amorous evening – but not for her!
Leah Sprechler plays Nickie, the “den-mother” of the Fandango girls and she really performs the role very convincingly as does April Nixon, as Helene, especially when they team with Charity to poignantly declaim that “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.” Charity goes off to seek betterment and knowledge (and maybe a suitable man) at the local “Y” and the first act ends hilariously as she is stranded in a broken-down elevator with Oscar, an insecure, claustrophobic accountant well portrayed by Paul Castree. After being freed at the beginning of the second act, guess what? Oscar appears smitten and Charity is enthralled by the prospect of leaving the taxi dancer world and becoming a conventional country housewife.
After spending time at a revivalist church meeting (Oscar is a member of the “Church of the Month Club”), where another great production number, “The Rhythm of Life,” appropriately performed by Richard E Watts as the preacher, Daddy Brubeck, Oscar tells Charity that he loves her as they sit back to back in booths at Chile’s Hacienda. The emotions lead Charity into her final big number, “I’m a Brass Band” and then comes the send off from her colleagues that also reveals a sentimental side to her “Hitlerian”-type boss Herman (Ira Denmark) as he explains how “I Love to Cry at Weddings”
All seems set for the full Hollywood happy ending with the loving couple riding off into the sunset but remember the original film from which the musical was adapted. Frederico Fellini and Neil Simon are masters of the unexpected twist.
This production uses the original theatre ending, so you may come away wondering why some women always seem to pick losers time and again, get dumped and never learn. (The recent revival on Broadway apparently used a more PC ending, implying that this would never happen again to Charity.) After seeing her in action you be the judge, but do go and see this excellent and very enjoyable production with a superb, well-balanced cast and an exceptional leading lady who, based on this performance, has all that is needed to star on Broadway.
Sweet Charity at Gateway Playhouse
BY STEVE PARKS
August 2, 2006
It was the broken foot of a sitcom star that grabbed the headlines when "Sweet Charity" was revived on Broadway last year. The show went on with spunky Charlotte D'Amboise in previews until Christina Applegate could high-step her way through opening night. But the more critical injury must have been to the brains of the producers. What were they thinking when they decided to "improve on" the original 1966 choreography by Bob Fosse?
The Gateway Playhouse producers had a better idea. If it ain't broke, don't call a dance doctor.
Not that "Sweet Charity" is a great musical; call a script doctor if you like. But without the dance, this show would be a plodding cliche. As it is, Gateway's lively revival comes off as a plucky cliche. Girl meets boy. Boy leeches off girl and dumps her into a lake - twice. She's a dance-hall hostess with a golden heart; some of the young or youngish ladies employed in such establishments receive extra remuneration from which the house collects a kickback.
So when the girl improbably named Charity Hope Valentine meets a geeky virginity freak named Oscar in a stuck elevator, we should know better than to expect their relationship to go anywhere but down.
Charity, played with requisite perkiness by Kiira Schmidt, nevertheless earns the sobriquet "sweet" in front of her name. She also reminds us of a young Gwen Verdon, who was Fosse's wife when she originated the role. Lithe and funny (she even has red hair), Schmidt convincingly embodies the role of the girl guys hate to dump, but dump anyway. She expects so much with so little encouragement.
It's that expectant quality that helps get us through all her predictable victimization. You can't sell it and give it away at the same time, Charity. Hello! Accomplices in her feel-sorry-for-me sweetness are Steven Ted Beckler as a movie star who sets Charity up for her shining moment in "If My Friends Could See Me Now," and Paul Castree as her purity-obsessed fiance.
Director Mitzi Hamilton's best decision is to re-create the Fosse moves and attitude, especially at the barre where the dance-hall girls plead, "Hey, Big Spender."
Scenic and lighting designers Kelly Tighe and Kim Hanson conspire in creating the illusion of 1966; they seem to have been inspired by the set of TV's "Laugh-In." Sock it to us.