Sweet Charity Soars at Stoneham Theatre (5 Stars)

By Michele Markarian

 

‘Sweet Charity’ - Book by Neil Simon; Music by Cy Coleman; Lyrics by Dorothy Fields; Directed by Ilyse Robbins. Presented by Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, through April 24.

 

This is hard to write, given that it’s Neil Simon, but Sweet Charity is probably one of the worst books of a musical ever written. But such is the power of Stoneham Theatre’s production (under the marvelous direction of Ilyse Robbins) that this is literally a five star production, one that you shouldn’t miss.

 

Charity (Vanessa Dunleavy) is a dancer-for-hire in a rundown ballroom in New York City. An uneducated girl with a heart of gold, Charity is constantly giving more than she gets in her ill-fated relationships.  (“You know how I know he loves me?  Every time I say I love him, he says ditto”, she says to a fellow dancer, to justify her latest louche, who eventually steals her money and knocks her into the river.) She has a brief flirtation with a gorgeous movie star, Vittorio Vidal (Andrew Giordano), who is temporarily estranged from his jealous girlfriend Ursula (Deirdre Burke). She then gets stuck in the elevator with a neurotic stranger, Oscar Lindquist (Nick Sulfaro), who adds the “Sweet” to her name when he falls in love with what he perceives as her purity. Charity tells Oscar that she works in a bank, but he follows her to work one night and watches her on the job. Despite this, he asks her to marry him, as he is sure he can overcome any feelings of jealousy. Charity’s fellow dancers and boss, Herman (Steve Gagliastro) throw her an emotional goodbye party the night she runs off to marry Oscar. Oscar, however, has had second thoughts, and realizes that he will only use her past against her.  Reluctantly, he breaks it off, and Charity is left alone after falling, once again, in the river. She emerges, oddly optimistic. 

 

Luckily, the book is helped along by some first-rate musical numbers – “Big Spender”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, and “Rhythm of Life”, to name a few – and a cast that is flawless.  Vanessa Dunleavy is luminous in the title role, and is a wonderful dancer, to boot. My husband, who had seen Broadway regular Charlotte d’Amboise as Charity, whispered to me during the performance, “This girl is better”. Andrew Giordano, as Vittorio Vidal, has tremendous presence, and an absolutely gorgeous singing voice. Deirdre Burke, as Ursula, is petulant and adorable. Nick Sulfaro plays Oscar with a hapless appeal.  Steve Gagliastro’s Herman is gruff and sentimental, particularly during the beautiful “I Love to Cry at Weddings”. The talented ensemble – all wonderful dancers and singers – fully inhabit Charity’s 1960’s New York. 

 

Jon Savage’s two-tiered set, augmented by Franklin Meissner, Jr.’s lighting design, really creates the atmosphere of the city and ballroom. The band is situated on the second level, along with a walkway, which, with dimmed lighting onstage, produces the subterranean ambiance of the ballroom. But it’s Ilyse Robbin’s energetic direction and choreography that give the show its heartbeat.  Ms. Robbins will be back at Stoneham this fall directing and choreographing the musical Mame, and I for one can’t wait. For more info, go to: http://www.stonehamtheatre.org/sweet-charity.html