Theater Review: SWEET CHARITY (Reprise 2.0)

by Tony Frankel on June 23, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles

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SWEETER THE SECOND TIME AROUND

It’s like kicking a puppy dog to dislike Charity Hope Valentine. Charity is the heroine of the 1966 musical Sweet Charity — a strange amalgam of high hopes and low blows. The show once made famous by Gwen Verdon’s slinkiness and Bob Fosse’s choreography is pocked with terrific tunes by Cy Coleman & Dorothy Fields and funny book by Neil Simon (based on Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria). A ditzy, optimistic, dance-hall hostess at the Fandango Ballroom — where every working girl longs for a “Big Spender” — Charity lurches from one emotional disappointment to another.

Her first let down is a feckless married man who pushes her into a lake and takes her money; next is Vittorio, an Italian matinee idol who uses her to make his mistress jealous; and the last is Oscar, a nerdy but lovable neurotic who is scared by the thought of all the other men in her life. This pop-up musical celebrates Charity’s spunky spirit despite so much serial disappointment. The plot takes Charity from Vittorio’s penthouse (“If My Friends Could See Me Now”) to a stuck elevator (“I’m the Bravest Individual”) to a hippie church (“Rhythm of Life”) to a paralyzed parachute ride at Coney Island. The sturdy, funky score mirrors her highs (“I’m A Brass Band”) and uncharacteristic lows (“Where Am I Going?”).

It may take some credulity to believe in her trusting, unflappable sweetness amid all these bad breaks, but I doubt anyone can or will quibble with the show’s dippy dichotomy when they see what the newly revamped Reprise organization has done with it. Having being shuttered for 5 years after 14 years of producing rarely revived musicals utilizing simple sets and costumes, Founder and Producing Artistic Director Marcia Seligson has created Reprise 2.0, and it’s even sweeter the second time around.

Returning to Reprise is Music Director & Conductor Gerald Sternbach, whose bodacious on-stage band reminds us why these scores demand to be heard this way. Unlike some outfits that do concert-stagings of musicals, Reprise’s are fully memorized, fully choreographed, and fully full of Broadway pros* (the Tony-nominated Carmen Cusack will be starring in Victor, Victoria in September). There will be three musicals each season at its former home, the 550-seat Freud Theatre at UCLA, with a two-week run for each show; Sweet Charity closes July 1.

Here, three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall’s indomitable staging is a lively showcase for the ridiculously high-spirited and energetic Laura Bell Bundy in the appealing title role. Fresh-faced, lithe, and a true trouper given her voice was a little hoarse opening night, Bundy delivers a truckload of open-hearted vulnerability as she hurls herself into her songs and dances with infectious, wide-eyed delight. If anyone can make a cynical 2018 audience care about a born victim who never learns from the mistakes she makes, the indefatigable Bundy is that heartbreaker.

If anything rivals Bundy’s extraordinary performance, it’s Marshall’s time-capsule choreography, a reminder of how Fosse could turn funky ’60s dance steps into a brilliant new body language — the infectious, showstopping “Rich Man’s Frug” is a showcase for the large ensemble doing a synchronized, twisting, jerky dance craze while the girls exhibit costumer Angela Balogh Calin’s great taste in hosiery.

By playing the reality behind the men in — and out — of Charity’s life,  Barrett Foa is charming as Oscar, and Robert Mammana is suave as Vittorio; their grounded portrayals show us why Charity keeps getting taken in. Terron Brooks has a lot of contagious fun as Daddy Brubeck, the cool cat who runs a tax-dodging, drug-peddling pseudo-church. As seasoned consorts at Herman’s (Jon Jon Briones) Fandango Room, Krystal Joy Brown and Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer provide terrific back-up, and score on their own when they cut loose in the poignant “Baby, Dream Your Dream.” When Charity sings with her dance-hall friends, “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” you know they ain’t talkin’ about this production.

photos by Michael Lamont

Sweet Charity
Reprise 2.0
UCLA’s Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, 245 E. Charles Young Dr.
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on July 1, 2018
for tickets, call 800.982.2787 or visit Reprise 2.0

* The only sour moment for me was a pre-curtain speech by Actors Equity, who patted themselves on the back for working with Reprise; it was a paradoxical moment for those who know how much damage Equity has done to L.A. Theater over the years. Making a choice contrary to its voting membership, Equity decided last year that 99-seat companies (previously called “Equity-Waiver”) which are not structured around a membership model will have to pay Equity actors and stage managers the minimum wage, for rehearsals as well as performances. This forces producers to use scripts with less actors, among many many other issues. What’s next? Bringing down Equity actors who want to showcase themselves at the Hollywood Fringe Festival? Equity-Waiver was started by Equity actors who want to act, who are all grown-ups and don’t need a union with dollar signs in its eyes to tell them what to do.

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Cris Franco June 23, 2018 at 8:35 pm

I agree wholeheartedly with your review, Tony. This is a very impressive start for the newly rebooted REPRISE 2.0. Laura Bell Bundy gives an infectiously electric starring performance as does the stellar musical director Gerald “Jerry” Sternbach. Looking forward to Victor/Victoria and Grand Hotel.

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