By Barry Reszel
Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before. Its origin dates back more than 100 years and its telling has many iterations:
Once there was couple with two children—the son, an extreme pessimist, and his sister, the exact opposite. As the children grew, their parents became alarmed over the extreme nature of both traits and so decided to try an experiment at Christmas.
From Santa that year, their son asked for a gold watch and their daughter, a pony. So on Christmas Eve, when the children went to bed, the parents put a beautifully wrapped gold watch under the tree with their son’s name on it, and in the place for their daughter’s present, they shoveled in a massive heap of manure.
When the children came downstairs on Christmas morning, the pessimistic son was heard saying, “Looks like a gold watch. But I bet it’s not even real gold; it must be brass. It probably won’t even work for long.” His optimistic sister, however, began excitedly sifting through the large pile of manure and was heard squealing, “With this much shit, there’s gotta be a pony here somewhere.”
That girl’s name must have been Charity Hope Valentine.
Because that’s the kind of unbridled optimism, even in the face of poverty and heartache, that’s the undeniable takeaway of Sweet Charity, a superb production of which is onstage at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire through October 28.
The 1966 musical (Cy Coleman, music; Dorothy Fields, lyrics; and Neil Simon, book) was directed and choreographed by dance legend Bob Fosse and starred his wife, Gwen Verdon. Based on the screenplay for Frederico Fellini‘s film, Nights of Cabiria, Simon PG-rates the script by turning Fellini’s prostitute into a tamer, if not completely pure, dance-hall girl.
Ultimately, it’s her judged lack of innocence that scares off a good-guy suitor in this episode of Charity’s life. Its loving juxtaposition against her childlike faith in romantic love (“There’s gotta be a pony here somewhere”) leaves patrons wistfully melancholy, but knowing Charity is going to be just fine.
The full synopsis and history of productions (from the original 1966 Tony winner for Best Choreography to the 2016 Sutton Foster off-Broadway production—with several in between) may be read here.
Note that this summary outlines Sweet Charity‘s traditional (improbable) ending, one of at least three known to this reviewer. (The other two are the rejected saccharine close of the film version found on the DVD and a weird, confusing, celestial version staged recently at a Chicagoland community theatre.) Wise Director Alex Sanchez rejected all three and staged the perfectly understated scene, just as it was meant to be, though this review won’t be its spoiler.
Of course dance-first Sanchez’s other significantly evident contribution to this production is his majestic, Fosse-inspired choreography that makes his Sweet Charity a true movement showcase. The company’s performance of the three-scene interpretative dance break, “Rich Man’s Frug,” is alone worth the price of admission; additional shout out to frequent Marriott and this show’s Dance Captain Laura Savage.
Conductor Patti Garwood and her talented eight-member band accompany an excellent ensemble cast through a terrific songbook including knows songs like, “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “I’m a Brass Band” and “Big Spender,” among many others. And the necessarily nimble simple set by Scott Davis is memorable for both a cool elevator to host the funniest scene in the show and the projection work of Anthony Churchill. So, too, Mieka van der Ploeg’s groovy costumes keep the audience members ensconced in the 1960s.
Lithely talented Ann Horak (Charity), whose Broadway credits include Roxy in Chicago, leads Sanchez’s star-studded cast with grace, style, movement and an impressively satisfying voice. Perhaps most important of all, Horak gets audiences to believe that her Charity truly believes. And who doesn’t need to spend a little time with a few more people like that in their lives?
As neurotic love interest Oscar, Alex Goodrich, proves himself (again) to be one of Chicagoland best comic actors. The Jeff-winner who’s entertained audiences in most of the area’s professional houses is the centerpiece of the show’s most comedic scene, meeting Charity while the two are stuck in an elevator. His performance is nothing short of brilliant.
Joining these two are all-star supporting cast members, including the handsome Adam Jacobs, who originated Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway and in the first national tour. Jacobs acting is remarkable as Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal, and his pipes are put to excellent use in the belting, “Too Many Tomorrows.” Kenny Ingram returns from 10 years on Broadway in The Lion King to star as hippie religious cult leader Daddy Brubeck, whose hypnotic and comical “Rhythm of Life” song serves as backdrop for Charity and Oscar’s first date.
There is nary a weak link on (or back of) the Marriott stage for this Sweet Charity. And if the story itself requires some suspension of disbelief on patrons’ parts, maybe that’s what we need to walk out believing that Charity (and all of us) might live hopefully ever after.
Marriott Theatre presents “Sweet Charity” through October 28 at 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire. More information and tickets are available here.