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Hey, big spenders: Pioneer Theatre spends a little time with ‘Sweet Charity’

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angie Schworer, left, (as Nickie), Nancy Lemenager (as Charity) and Natalie Hill (as Helene) perform a scene in costume in the vintage furniture store Mod a-go-go, for Pioneer Theatre Company's upcoming production of the song-and-dance musical "Sweet Charity," set in the 1960s, Thursday, April 24, 2014.

By Ellen Fagg Weist

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published May 03 2014 01:01AM
Updated May 12, 2014 02:49PM

It takes a cast of triple-threats — actors who are equally talented at dancing and singing — to sell the big 1966 musical "Sweet Charity," says Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director Karen Azenberg, who calls it one of her personal "bucket list" shows.

After all, as the show’s original choreographer and director, Bob Fosse, believed: "The time to sing is when your emotional level is too high to just speak anymore, and the time to dance is when your emotions are just too strong to only sing about how you ‘feel.’ "

Contemporary audiences might consider the show’s plotline, with its focus on dance-hall girl Charity Hope Valentine’s search for love, somewhat dated. Just consider the show retro, or a midcentury classic, says Azenberg, who is directing and choreographing it.

After all, the musical’s big dance numbers showcase ’60s-era design and style influences — from mod to finding yourself to hippie — brought back to the zeitgeist through TV’s "Mad Men," which has influenced TV advertising and fashion, even showing up in American malls on the racks at Banana Republic.

At a media preview last week, Azenberg showcased the 23-member cast with a run-through of the dance number "Rich Man’s Frug." "I have obscene talent," says Azenberg of her cast, a majority of whom are Broadway veterans. "They are unbelievably skilled and experienced and interested."

The song tells the story of what happens after Charity is dumped by a boyfriend, when she happens to bump into star Vittorio Vidal (played by Sean McDermott), who has just gotten into a snit with his girlfriend. Vidal impulsively invites Charity, a nobody, to an upscale club frequented by a mod crowd.

That mod aesthetic is essential to the number’s aerobic choreography. "It’s 6 ½ minutes of dancing, with no breaks," Azenberg says. "The challenge is how to dance that big and not smile."

At its heart, "Sweet Charity" is a fairy tale, and Charity Hope Valentine is looking for her happily-ever-after, Azenberg says.

"It’s about looking for love, which is always timeless. She’s just looking in strange places," says actor John Scherer, whose Broadway and regional theater film credits include four turns in the role of Oscar, a nebbish accountant who falls for Charity after a distinctive meeting in an elevator, which leads to an iconic bit of claustrophobic physical comedy.

In fact, Scherer has even wooed Nancy Lemenager’s Charity before, in 2006 during a summer stock season at the Musical Theatre of Wichita. She recalls rehearsing the show for a week before performing it for a week, which makes the story seem new to her this time around.

Her character is a dreamer, with limited societal and economic options, someone from the other side of the tracks. "She’s hopeful, maybe even beyond hopeful. She’s got flexible standards — she’s even willing to forgo the white picket fence," says Lemenager, who’s returning to PTC after playing Brooke Wyeth in "Other Desert Cities" here last fall. ("I loved both roles," she says.)

Scherer says he has played Oscar so many times because he enjoys the rhythm of Neil Simon’s writing, as well as "Sweet Charity’s" music by Broadway veterans Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields. The score includes well-known songs such as "Hey, Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now."

Azenberg says Pioneer Theatre Company’s "Sweet Charity" will respect Fosse’s influences, while telling the story through dance in her own style.

For example, the iconic "Big Spender" has to be staged with a rail with girls draped over it. But Azenberg puzzled over a concept for the show’s 11 o’clock number, "I’m a Brass Band." The song’s lyrics don’t answer the question of why Charity is equating her love to a brass band in the first place.

Then Azenberg and her team came up with the idea of staging the number as Charity’s cinematic musical fantasy. "It’s ‘American in Paris’ meets ‘Sweet Charity,’ " the director says. "It’s very romantic, very big, with fabulous dancing that supports where she is in the story."

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