Sugar Substitute

Neither bittersweet nor truly fluffy, Sweet Charity fails to satisfy.

Charity Hope Valentine is a loving and trusting soul, perpetually betrayed by the men she loves but always willing to give her heart again. She works at a dance hall, flirting and dancing for money. Sweet Charity, with a book by Neil Simon and songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, was written in 1966, and the hypocrisy of the times didn't allow Charity to be an actual prostitute. (I've always wondered if it's because the heroine is a real hooker that no one's revived the brilliant Irma La Douce in decades.) Nonetheless, it's Charity's profession -- tamed down though it is -- that trips her up when she thinks she's finally found a loving, lifelong partner.

Although the musical, currently being staged by Boulder's Dinner Theatre, is full of enjoyable songs and Bob Fosse-inspired dance numbers (choreographed by Alicia Dunfee), the plot is problematic; the sweet, sad silliness of the protagonist is the one interesting and original thing about it. Joanie Brosseau-Beyette is funny and adorable as Charity and manages to raise the roof and provide long minutes of sheer pleasure with "If My Friends Could See Me Now," but she doesn't give Charity much depth. Hers is a straightforward musical-comedy performance, with lots of posing and indicating. In addition, her mike is set too high, making every Betty Boop-style squeak and giggle sound shrill and causing her normally terrific singing voice to come out distorted and flat. The ending -- which leaves Charity sobbing and alone, although she does eventually summon her famed resilience -- is troubling. If Simon and company wanted it to be bittersweet, they should have provided a more believable script; something this lightweight demands a happy, singing, boisterous climax. Nor does the BDT company (with one notable exception) provide the feeling that the text omits. Somehow, the troupe's customary élan is missing from this production. The dance hostesses, for example -- Alicia Dunfee, Lea L. Chapman and Shelly Cox-Robie, among others -- are talented and good-looking women with nice voices. But their costumes are unflattering, their rendition of "Hey, Big Spender" lacks tension, and for much of the time they seem...well, a bit tired. Still, I love their version of "There's Got to Be Something Better Than This" and also "Baby Dream Your Dream," sung expressively by Dunfee and Chapman.

And Wayne Kennedy is purely wonderful in a performance a little reminiscent of Tony Shalhoub's Monk. He plays the multi-phobic Oscar, who finds himself stuck in an elevator with Charity and has a twitchy, monumental meltdown, though he's quietly naturalistic for the rest of the show. He and Brosseau-Beyette are tender and moving together, which makes Oscar's callous behavior in the final scene difficult to believe.

Joanie Brosseau-Beyette (from left), Alicia Dunfee 
and Lea L. Chapman make prostitution look cute in <
i>Sweet Charity.
Joanie Brosseau-Beyette (from left), Alicia Dunfee and Lea L. Chapman make prostitution look cute in < i>Sweet Charity.

Details

Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through October 28, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com
5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder

In the early twentieth century, musicals were intended as nothing more than light entertainment -- pure fluff. With few exceptions, nobody expected to find significance or emotional truth there. In the 1940s, the tragic undertones pulsing through Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! and Carousel were considered innovative. Then came Cabaret in the 1960s, which dared to use the form to explore pre-war Berlin. Meanwhile, of course, Sondheim was testing the plasticity of musical theater, making it his own and shaping it for whatever artistic purpose he chose. But Sweet Charity isn't really fish or fowl. It wants to be serious, but its soul is frivolous. The movie-star plot feels like the feather-boa '30s, the dance-hall scenes like bits of Gypsy. You need speed, precision, dash and style to hold this disjointed creation together, and Boulder's Dinner Theatre doesn't quite pull it off. -- Wittman

 
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