Do you want to have fun? How about a few laughs? Sweet Charity will show you a – boom, boom – good time this summer at the Shaw Festival. Just not quite a great time in director Morris Panych's sharp but starless production.
Sweet Charity, which premiered on Broadway in 1966, is seen as a bridge between the Rodgers and Hammerstein era of musicals and the Lloyd Webber and Sondheim schism to come – and it alternates between feeling ahead of and behind its time.
In Cy Coleman's memorable score (with lyrics by Dorothy Fields), you can feel the form testing boundaries with groovier numbers like The Rich Man's Frug and The Rhythm of Life before retreating to safety with show tunes like If My Friends Could See Me Now.
Similarly, the plot is nearly daring, following taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine (Julie Martell) on her quixotic quest for love. In this musical, being a paid dance partner is depicted as disreputable, the insinuation being that some of the women do more than dance for the – boom, boom – big spenders. (It's based on a Federico Fellini film, Nights of Cabiria, where the main character is, skipping insinuation, simply a prostitute.)
Panych's production of the slightly self-censoring show is at its best in the satirical scenes written by Neil Simon that surround the song and dance – semi-surreal sketches of New York neurotics and fanatics encountered by the title character on the rocky road to romance.
The musical opens with Charity being broken up with in the worst possible way – her (married) boyfriend literally dumping her into a lake in Central Park, then stealing the cash out of her purse and running as she nearly drowns. New Yorkers walk by and comment on her plight, but no one stops to help to her because they have other things to do – dentist's appointments, dogs to walk etc.
It's hard to believe this scenario was already fodder for Broadway gags just two years after the murder of Kitty Genovese, a crime that famously provoked the New York Times headline "Thirty-Seven Who Saw Murder Didn't Call the Police." But this darkly comic territory is Panych's sweet spot – and, indeed, the opening scene in some ways summons thoughts of his own 1989 play, Seven Stories, where a man's attempted suicide is ignored by a series of self-involved people.
Once back on dry land, Charity begins a search to find her next bad boyfriend, encountering an Italian movie star (the excellent Mark Uhre) and claustrophobic control freak (the even more excellent Kyle Blair) in between shifts at the Fandango Ballroom (where her co-workers are played with sizzle and sass by Kimberley Rampersad and Melanie Phillipson, respectively).
Charity's meandering pursuit of happiness is interrupted by frequent dance numbers – and the originals were memorably choreographed by Bob Fosse (who also directed the 1969 movie version). Here, they seem more like dance breaks in Parker Esse's enjoyably slight, but curiously contextless choreography.
Still, it all ambles along amiably, missing only a strong centre to anchor the story. Martell, in her seventh season as part of the Shaw ensemble, is certainly sweet as Charity, but the role stretches her to the limits as a performer. Her dancing is decent, but she was left occasionally breathless at the final preview I saw. Her singing can be beautiful, but at times it also seems strained. And her comic timing is hit or miss – certainly compared to cast-mates who never miss a beat like Phillipson and Blair.
In short, Martell isn't quite a match for the role.
The increasing centrality of musical theatre at the Shaw Festival has been one of the main through-lines of Jackie Maxwell's tenure as artistic director. The company is catching up to the Stratford Festival when it comes to its orchestra – musical director Paul Sportelli commands a respectably sized 15-piece band here – but the company continues to believe its own press about its ensemble at its peril.