The whore with the heart of gold has been a standard character in theater and film for a long time, usually helping the hero and acting as his confidante. Occasionally she even got to marry him as her reward.
But filmmaker Federico Fellini added depth and dimension to that character in “The Nights of Cabiria,” where the luminous performance of his actress wife, Giulietta Masina, softened her rough edges and transformed her into a poignant figure who faced life with optimism no matter how many times love handed her “the fuzzy end of the lollipop,” as Marilyn Monroe unforgettably put it in “Some Like It Hot.”
Bob Fosse sweetened the image further when he created “Sweet Charity,” a love letter to his own wife, dancer Gwen Verdon, with collaborators Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields. His heroine is a “dance-hall hostess,” and her name — Charity Hope Valentine — tells you all you need to know about her. Pioneer Theatre Company is giving the 1960s Tony Award–winning musical a spirited revival bursting with high-energy production numbers.
“Sweet Charity” is subtitled “the adventures of Charity, a girl who wanted to be loved,” which sums up the plot. Charity ricochets from one relationship to another — stuck in “the flypaper of life” — as she searches for Mr. Right: from Charlie, who steals her purse and throws her into a lake, to Vittorio, a flamboyant Italian film star, and finally Oscar, a sweet accountant she meets when the two become stuck in an elevator. “You run your heart like a hotel,” dance-hall compatriot Nickie tells her.
The reason to see the show is the dancing, showcased in numbers like “Rich Man’s Frug,” with its black-and-white motif; “The Rhythm of Life,” with its psychedelic hippie look; “I’m a Brass Band,” where costume designer Patrick Holt has clad everyone in eye-popping red orange; and “Big Spender,” where the dance-hall girls look as if they have escaped from “Cell Block Tango” in “Chicago.” Director/choreographer Karen Azenberg has deftly updated the original Fosse choreography without compromising its original zip.
Nancy Lemenager gives a knockout performance as Charity, adroitly balancing world weariness with an unending enthusiasm. Angie Schworer and Natalie Hill are smart and sassy as her dance-hall girlfriends Nickie and Helene. The two shine in “There’s Gotta Be Something Better” and “Baby, Dream Your Dream,” where they lament their lot in life.
John Scherer’s gentle, unassuming Oscar nicely counterpoints Sean McDermott’s charismatic, emotional Vittorio. Bill Bateman creates a curmudgeonly, but tender-hearted, Herman, and Marza Warsinske and Gerry McIntyre deliver entertaining cameos as the petulant Ursula and outrageously over-the-top Big Daddy.
George Maxwell’s pop-art set, with its heart motif, finds its perfect complement in Michael Gilliam’s happy-go-lucky lighting and Holt’s costumes, highlighted by Charity’s signature hot pink outfits. Phil Reno’s savvy musical direction keeps singers and orchestra tunefully together.
“Sweet Charity” is short on depth, but its endless vitality and roll-with-the-punches outlook are a pleasant escape. And then there’s all that wonderful dancing!
An exceptionally well-matched cast and eye-catching dance numbers bring new vitality to “Sweet Charity.”
When • Reviewed on May 9; Mondays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through May 24, with Saturday matinees at 2 p.m.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. University Ave., Salt Lake City
Running time • Two-and-a-half hours (including an intermission)
Tickets • $38 to $59 in advance; $5 more on the day of the show. Half price for students K–12 on Mondays and Tuesdays. Call 581-6961 or visit www.pioneertheatre.org for tickets and information.