Review: ‘Sweet Charity’ from Reprise: The dancing never gets old, but the book could use a nip and tuck
First things first: Let’s have a round of applause for Reprise 2.0, the reboot of Reprise Theatre Company, which officially closed in 2013.
Lovers of old musicals — baby boomers and their elders, I’m looking at you — give it up! You know what you want. And Reprise is back to give it to you.
The inaugural offering, “Sweet Charity,” which is playing at UCLA’s Freud Playhouse through July 1, has plenty of juicy Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields numbers to satisfy the voracious appetites of Reprise’s loyal patrons. The chance to experience once again the louche glory of “If My Friends Could See Me Now” is all the enticement an old-time Broadway enthusiast needs.
Conscripting Kathleen Marshall to direct and choreograph was an inspired move as “Sweet Charity” is famously a Bob Fosse musical. Dance is essential to the show’s success, even in a stripped down production trying to make the most of minimal resources.
Marshall, no surprise here, is at her best in reanimating the big group numbers. “Big Spender,” “Rich Man’s Frug” and “Rhythm of Life” raise the pulse of a largely faithful revival that can’t help magnifying the inconsistency of the material.
Laura Bell Bundy, who earned a Tony nomination for her performance in “Legally Blonde” and was a memorable Amber Von Tussle in the Broadway musical “Hairspray,” was born to play the title role. The actress sports vintage Madonna-Marilyn curls and a tousled eroticism in her emotionally delicate portrayal of Charity Hope Valentine, the naïve dance-hall girl who keeps getting her heart broken (and purse picked) by men who don’t deserve her sweetness.
Gwen Verdon, Fosse’s wife and muse, originated the role of Charity in this 1966 musical derived from the indelible Federico Fellini film “Nights of Cabiria.” It’s a demanding part, requiring (among other preternatural gifts) extraordinary breath control to handle both the dance sequences and tricky exclamations of Fields’ ingenious lyrics. Bundy throws herself headlong into the part. Her intensity never flags, but her voice suffers a bit in the second act, underscoring that the show is an endurance test not only for the audience but for its overtaxed star.
Neil Simon’s book is the most dated aspect of the musical. Hard as the performers try, they haven’t much luck with the thudding banter. Some of the shtick is painfully overextended. The meet-cute between Charity and Oscar (Barrett Foa), which takes place in a stuck elevator at the 92nd Street Y, is really a meet-long. The book for “Sweet Charity” is badly in need of a scalpel-wielding play doctor.
The orchestra, conducted by music director Gerald Sternbach, occupies a platform on the stage behind where the action tightly plays out. The music sounds tinny during the overture and in patches later, but the score’s jazzy verve comes into full color when it counts most.
I found my foot secretly making arch Fosse moves during “Big Spender,” the dance hall number of erotically charged minimalism that Marshall ecstatically reinterprets. “Rich Man’s Frug,” the mesmerizing Eurotrash nightclub sequence, had me shimmying along like a resurrected beatnik.
“Rhythm of Life,” led with religious zeal by Terron Brooks as Daddy Brubeck, swept me in its transcendent beat. A good thing, too, as there’s little point dwelling on the ludicrousness of this detour to a hippie cult’s outdoor church service, where straitlaced Oscar, Charity’s latest romantic savior, improbably decides to take this alluringly unconventional woman on their first outing together.
Similarly, the nutty setup for “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” which has Charity rummaging around the bedroom of international film star Vittorio Vidal (Robert Mammana), is best not overanalyzed. Better to “pow!’ “holy cow!” and “wow!” along with the lyrics. In truth, the song’s afterglow eases the farcical ordeal of Charity hiding out in Vittorio’s closet after his tempestuous inamorata, Ursula (Ashley Loren), storms the apartment.
Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer and Krystal Joy Brown, playing two of Charity’s cynically supportive dance hall colleagues, deliver with Bundy the sweet, sardonic goods of “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.” And everyone is allowed to go deliriously bonkers in “I Love to Cry at Weddings,” which Jon Jon Briones powers as Herman, the sleazy dance hall boss who turns out to have a sentimental streak.
This Reprise 2.0 production, a collaboration with UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, exploits the musical numbers for all their worth. Which raises a question: Why not, in the company’s new incarnation, rethink the approach to presenting material that could use a stronger dramaturgical hand?
Sitting through the longueurs of Simon’s book shouldn’t have to be the penitential price for our enjoyment of the musical portion of the show. If you can tweak the ending, as has become almost compulsory in an era of #MeToo enlightenment, why not rigorously edit the entire show? Much of the protracted silliness could be burned away without losing the dramatic context. And would it really be such a crime against the Broadway repertoire to occasionally repackage more problematic offerings in the direction of a staged concert?
Dutifully displaying those parts of a show that time has rendered obsolete doesn’t do anyone any favors. On the other hand, concentrating on what makes these old musicals special might, in fact, inspire a creative reworking that could give a defunct gem like “Sweet Charity” a second life.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, 245 Charles E. Young Drive East, L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; ends July 1
Information: (800) 982-2787 or www.reprise2.org
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Follow me @charlesmcnulty
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