There was only one Gwen Verdon (1925 –2000). When Bob Fosse created the musical Sweet Charity and enlisted his colleagues Neil Simon (book), Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics) to bring it to life, it was clearly a vehicle to celebrate the spectacular talent of his wife, Ms.Verdon. The musical received nine Tony award nominations in 1966, mostly due to her singular talents. With somebody else playing the show’s lead Charity, unless they are equally exceptional, it’s tough to measure up.
In WaterTower Theatre’s current production of Sweet Charity, running through August 16 at Addison Theatre Centre, director/ choreographer Michael Serrecchia cast leggy blonde Whitney Hennen in the title role. Her dancing, the core of the work as created by Fosse and company, lacked inspiration, accuracy and energy. She seemed tired on opening night. Adequate as an actor, she never invested herself fully in the role. Her performance needs to win the audience over with sincerity and heart. Instead she came across as remote and superficial, “acting” rather than “being” Charity. Her singing disappointed, as well. It’s odd to see the show’s recognizable, iconic tunes under-sung in a dry, perfunctory way. Hennen claimed in publicity this role was on her “bucket list”. Odd. I found her opening night performance underwhelming.
The production and show had other limitations. With Mark Mullino’s 5-piece orchestra dominating the venue’s upstage space, all action – and particularly, dance — got forced into a confined downstage area. This gave a cramped feel to the show, as if it were envisioned for an intimate space, not a large, open theatre. (Christopher Pickart, set design). Costumes, reflecting 60’s styles, looked clunky and ill fitting, particularly Charity’s garb. (Derek C. Whitener, Victor Newman Brockwell, costume design).
And the show’s book? Lacking anything but superficial continuity, it appeared written to provide rudimentary segue from one Fosse/ Verdon dance number to another. If the show’s dance numbers had excelled, this would not have presented a huge problem. In this production they were cramped, as stated above, and ragged. The stuck elevator scene where Charity meets her beau Oscar demonstrated the best writing in the work but felt out of place with the rest of the show’s script, as if Neil Simon wrote it for another show then shoe-horned it in here when the creative team needed something besides another dance number.
Best part of this show? Charity’s “dancer” buddies at the Fan-Dango Ballroom, played by Kia Boyer, Lindsay Longacre and Monique Abry, performing the show’s opening number, the celebrated “Big Spender”. Delivered center stage at “the bar” with deliberate pacing, raunchy sensuality and gallons of jaded ennui, the girls’ flair and raw vitality promised an evening of worthy entertainment that never materialized.