KPBS AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 25, 1998
Never in 13 years has the word ‘sweet’ been uttered in the same breath as ‘Sledgehammer.’ The testosterone-drenched theatrical Bad Boys have repeatedly been maligned for misogyny. But now, new hormones are raging. Estrogen has taken center stage, as the balance of power shifts to the distaff side. Women are getting big billing — directing, choreographing and starring in Sledgehammer’s latest show… “Sweet Charity.”
Okay, it wasn’t a totally sweet story to begin with. Charity Hope Valentine is sort of a whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, an open-hearted dance-hall hostess who still believes that love conquers all. She hangs out with a bunch of pretty tough broads and sells her time (though, she insists, not her body) to the first taker, highest bidder, or anyone who pays any attention to her whatsoever. As produced by Sledgehammer Theatre, in association with Eveoke Dance theatre, the award-winning musical is darker than it was in 1966, and grittier even than its original inspiration, the 1957 Fellini film, “Nights of Cabiria.” These girls, and their dance moves, are a lot sleazier as propelled by Gina Angelique than by the late director/choreographer Bob Fosse. And that’s what makes it fun… but still, despite proud protestations, hardly feminist.
These are rugged and formidable women to be sure, but their lives and their livelihood are at the behest of men. At the end, Charity stumbles on, eternally hopeful, but you can hardly say she’s in control of her life or her relationships with men. Okay, so once we get the lame attempts at political correctness and feminist doctrine out of the way, we can discuss this thoroughly delightful, but generally pretty straightforward production of a zesty, high-spirited musical. It isn’t the Sledgehammer, in-your-face approach to musicals — no matter what the theater’s press releases say — but it’s one helluva good time.
Director Kirsten Brandt, still glowing from last year’s spectacular “Demonology” at Sledge, has hit the jackpot again. She has a wonderful way with actors, with wit and with sarcasm, and she’s superbly teamed with Angelique, whose racy, raunchy moves are just perfect for the piece.
The action doesn’t really take off till the knockout number, “Big Spender.”
MUSIC: “Big Spender”
All the full-cast production numbers are great — ebullient and exuberant, thanks to Angelique’s dancers and her choreography, and a vocally powerful cast of 19, backed by a rousing, energetic sextet, especially strong on brass. The strength of the chorus numbers also underscores some of the weaknesses of Cy Coleman’s score, in spite of Dorothy Fields’ ever-so-clever lyrics and a generally humorous book by Neil Simon. But there are real musical clunkers here, like the title song, and odd choices by the musical and vocal directors that virtually buried potential showstoppers. For instance, “I’m a Brass Band,” written as the rousing 11 o’clock number, makes absolutely no sense a capella.
But these are mere quibbles. The verve and enthusiasm carry this show, as does Julie Jacob’s bangup job in the title role. The adorably agile Jacobs actually moves and acts better than she sings, especially in her throaty alto range. But she’s 100% charming, and a delicious match for G. Linus Weiss, who makes Oscar, the shleppy, neurotic accountant, into a real flesh-and-blood character unfortunately made to perform a totally out-of-character act at the end. All the Fan Dango Dance-hall girls are great, with standout performances by Angela Evans and Michelle Lamb. The design work provides excellent support, and Stacey Roth outdoes herself with the costumes, which have the same tacky wit as the rest of the production.
All in all, this is a mammoth and expensive undertaking for Sledgehammer Theatre. From a tiny little, site-specific, avant-garde experiment, the company has come into its own — and also unequivocally into the mainstream. The gender balance is changing, but the energy is still electric.
MUSIC, under and out, “Overture”
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.