By Pat Launer
There’s cause for Much (nostalgic) Ado:
Sweet Charity’s back — and Oliver, too.
Retro reminiscence all over the place,
Besotted with Arsenic, bedecked with Old Lace.
Charity Hope Valentine has her heart on her sleeve — and tattooed on her arm. In the Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields musical (with book by Neil Simon), Charity’s come a long way from her inspiration in Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” the 1957 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. Of course, Bob Fosse put his indelible stamp on the 1966 musical.
Up at Moonlight Stage Productions, “Sweet Charity” has a decidedly retro look and Fosse feel. Choreographer Paul David Bryant has done everything to revive those limp wrists, slouched backs and bowler hats. And as Charity, the perky, dance-happy redhead Kirsten Benton Chandler even looks a little like Gwen Verdon. Everything is in place: great singing and hoofing, endearing performers, an outstanding 19-piece orchestra. And yet. The pace lags (especially in the first act) and the show seems shopworn and dated. When Sledgehammer mounted “Charity” (so to speak) five years ago, the musical took on a darker, sleazier tinge — which perked up the proceedings considerably. Moonlight’s guest director Lewis Wilkenfeld gives us a period piece, an apparent attempt to recreate the original. It’s a well-executed, middle-of-the road production, spare in scenic design (uncredited), nicely lit and attractively costumed (Sharell Martin). There’s more pathos than grit, and without a little extra boost, the soufflé falls flat. All the Moonlight shows this season had a strong scent of nostalgia; the key ingredient missing here is the strong directorial hand of Kathy Brombacher, who always brings some added spice and panache, and a taste of something new to the mix. Which brings us back to “Charity,” appealing but not irresistible. Somehow, this production points up the weaknesses of the show: not enough full-on chorus numbers, a big heart but a lot of small scenes. One of those scenelets, in Vittorio Vidal’s apartment, is one of the best, with Charity hiding in a cutaway closet as the Italian idol woos his main squeeze, Ursula. In this scene, and the ultra-’60s “rhythm of Life” hippie-fest, it’s a hoot to see Erin and Eric Anderson play off each other. Both are great here, Eric as Vittorio and the cool-cat, Big Daddy Brubeck. Erin plays his sidekick in both scenes, and she gets the most gorgeous gown (her clothes were killers in “Singin’ in the Rain,” too, thanks to Sharell Martin). Mary Jo Mecca and Jennifer Shelton are the no-nonsense but not-too-tough broads who, like Charity, work at the Fan-Dango Ballroom. Kevin McMahon gives appealing neurotic dimension to Oscar, the nebbishy nice-guy Charity nearly snags. And the scene where the two of them get stuck in the elevator is well done technically and dramatically. Hope springs eternal in Sweet Charity (it’s her middle name).. and also for more musical edge — even in Vista.
IT’S A FINE LIFE
We haven’t seen “Oliver” around these parts recently… and now he’s making two visits to San Diego. Lyric Opera got first dibs; Broadway San Diego brings in the Cameron Mackintosh touring production in November. Meanwhile, we get a bevy of local cute kids, one with an impressive dramatic pedigree, and the other with humongous professional potential. The title character is played by Morgan Thomas Hollingsworth, a sweet-voiced 10 year-old from La Mesa, whose 13 year-old sister just finished performing in La Jolla Stage Company’s “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” whose 15 year-old sister played in “Footloose” at Junior Theatre, whose 18 year old brother appeared in Starlight’s “Scarlet Pimpernel,” and whose dad, Ed Hollingsworth, fresh from Lambs’ “1776,” plays his son’s grandfather in the second act of “Oliver.” Whew!! Oh yes, and Mom, Marion, just finished writing her fifth play. Young Morgan has an appealing stage presence, but needs to gain some vocal power. Plenty of that to spare in 13 year-old Robert Olson, who plays The Artful Dodger. Olson is a powerhouse, vocally and dramatically, and he’s delicious in every one of his too-few appearances. the other standouts are Debra Wanger, a graduate of the MFA program in musical theater at SDSU, as Nancy. She really knows how to put over a song, and give it meaning, not just melody. And Leon Natker is an un-nasty, non-villainous but still effective Fagin, with his rich voice and scheming ways. Though she doesn’t rate a bio, Stacy Lichter is excellent as Bet; she has an appealing stage presence and a lovely voice.
The set is a bit fussy (it’s rotated repeatedly, to not much dramatic effect); the costumes and makeup (Pam Stompoly) are pitch-perfect. The all-union, 11-piece orchestra is especially inspiring, under the baton of James Lowe, associate conductor at Houston Grand Opera. This is Lowe’s San Diego debut, and he’s welcome back any time; he brought wonderful energy and verve to the music. Director J. Sherwood Montgomery wisely kept the choreography to a minimum, which made it easier to get all those children moving with some sense of precision. All told, a pleasant if sometimes workmanlike evening spent with some wonderful songs that you don’t hear that often any more (but they’ll be back in November!)
Grandmas can be murder. In Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 comic classic, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the two sweet old Brewster sisters are just doing a service to the community — and to a dozen or so lonely old men. They barely hide their prey, buried in the basement; it’s all so… innocent. Meanwhile, their nephew thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt; his brother is a psycho/killer on the lam. And the third brother is even a worse demon: he’s a theater critic. There’s a wily German doctor named Einstein, a couple of Irish cops, and plenty of dead bodies to go around. Of corpse, of corpse…. It’s Brooklyn circa 1940 and it’s still great fun.
Scripps Ranch Theatre has brought in Renaissance Theatre founder/producing artistic director George Flint to shepherd the madness and mayhem; he’s gathered together a terrific cast and directed them extremely well. Everything is pitch-perfect; if only they could all remember their lines!! Other than that, the production is a total treat. Marty Burnett’s set is a detailed delight (oil portraits, flocked wallpaper, antimacassars and all). The lighting (Ginger Harris) and costumes (Martha Phillips) are just right. And Pat DiMeo and Sally Stockton make wonderfully dotty sibs… mixing up their deadly cocktail of elderberry wine. Mark McCoy is very humorous on his Bully!-pulpit as the trumpeting Roosevelt, Ben O’Fahy and Brian Redfern get those Irish accents just right, and Charlie Riendeau is deliciously terrifying as the nutcase killer who’s been made to look like Boris Karloff. Cristyn Chandler is cute as the clueless fiancée of Mortimer, the theater critic who hates theater. As Mort, rubber-faced Frank Remiatte does double-takes nonpareil — and , ironically, his malleable mug looks more than a tad like Nathan Lane’s. As the good (NOT!) doctor, Dave Rivas looks a little like Michael J. Pollard — but sounds more like Mengele. He’s hilarious, a singular standout. Great fun from all, for all. Who said old things (or people) have to get musty??
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“An Evenin’ with Billie” — late-night reprise of downtown’s fantastic performance by Anasa Johnson, singing the glorious songs of Billie Holiday; at 6th @ Penn; through 11/2
YOU MUST GO SEE THIS… BEFORE IT’S FORCED TO CLOSE FOR LACK OF AUDIENCE!!
“Love! Valour! Compassion!” — the boys are back in town! And what fabulous company they are. Just EXTENDED TO OCTOBER 18!!
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — Jeremiah Lorenz is fabulous, and the band, though ultra-loud, is killer. The Cygnet is hatched, and it soars; JUST EXTENDED to November 2!!
“Private Lives” — the most deliciously Cowardly lines! Smart, funny production @ Lamb’s Players Theatre; through 9/21
The Equinox is upon up: Time to put a little autumnal drama in your life!
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.