“Hey, Big Spender! Spend… a little time with me.”
Few theater moments are as surefire as this one. As conceived by original director/choreographer Bob Fosse — to a killer song by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields — the line of dance hall hostesses provocatively staring us down is guaranteed to raise an audience’s blood pressure. It sure does here, as the young female ensemble deliver “Big Spender” with all the brio and loucheness you could hope for.
The song comes early in the show, and it’s an auspicious beginning for Mazeppa Productions’ enjoyable Sweet Charity, which largely lives up to the promise.
Charity has always struck me as a peculiar piece — wonderful in parts, but not reliable. It’s loosely based on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, though Neil Simon’s jokey book scrubs out much of the harshness. At the time he wrote Charity, Simon was often regarded as the King of Broadway, but his contribution here is its least persuasive element.
Fortunately, Coleman’s music and Field’s lyrics are in a much higher class. The flavorfully ‘60s score is almost too much of a good thing (I’m thinking of Act II’s succession of 11 o’clock numbers — “The Rhythm of Life,” “I’m a Brass Band,” “I Love to Cry at Weddings”), but we wouldn’t want to lose any of it.
When music and lyrics can tell the story (essentially a hooker with a heart of gold, looking for happiness), Charity is on a roll. When it’s left to the script, we’re aware that the admixture of humor, sentiment and poignancy doesn’t cohere.
It’s also a complicated show to pull off, with heavy-duty singing-and-dancing responsibilities across the board. Here, an ensemble of eight handle much of it, which they deliver with unflagging energy and charm. (The choreography is recreated very much in the Fosse style by Robert Harris).
Director Rob Henry’s imaginatively-staged production is chamber-sized, which has its pluses. We feel intimately connected to the action. Musical director Zachary Wiseley’s five-member orchestra sounds just right for a dance hall. And the show’s momentum never flags — a tribute to everybody involved.
If the characters here sometimes emerge more as types than three-dimensional people, whose dreams are sadly out of kilter with their real lives, much of the blame belongs to Simon. But an additional challenge is that Charity is not really a show for young people; we’re meant to see the women as close to taking their last trip around the dance floor. Colleen Clancy is a lovely and accomplished Charity, but it’s hard to believe that time is running out on her options. Nonetheless, she and Sam Nagel (goofy and winning as Oscar) make something delightful of the comic elevator scene.
Yet the youth of this cast is also a crucial part of what makes it such fun to watch. Mazeppa gives us an opportunity to see the next generation of rising musical theater talent. For that reason alone (and there are plenty of others), Sweet Charity is a show to see and remember.
Sweet Charity runs through July 30. For more information, visit Mazeppa Productions’ website.