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Charitably, Shaw Festival’s ‘Sweet Charity’ is a mixed bag

“Sweet Charity,” one of the strangest but most inspired musicals of the 1960s, demands an awful lot of its cast.

Even if a production hits all the humorous notes of Neil Simon’s book – and even if the title character is cast with an affable and gifted actress in the title role of a dance hall hostess with a heart of gold – a dozen other elements need to line up perfectly in order for it to truly sing.

The humor and the irresistible lead actress are present in the Shaw Festival’s production of the classic show directed by Morris Panych and designed by Ken MacDonald, but the rest of those elements never quite fall into place.

Perhaps the most glaring absence is the precision-targeted impact of Bob Fosse’s choreography, which goes limp in exactly the spots where it needs to snap, crackle and pop. The show’s most famous number, “Big Spender,” runs out of gas in the first few bars. “Rich Man’s Fug,” one of the most brilliantly conceived dance pieces in Broadway history, similarly underwhelms.

This is to some degree understandable: The Shaw Festival’s cast is made up of many gifted young men and women with extraordinary acting chops, of whom it would be unreasonable to expect Broadway triple-threat status. Even so, unlike “Cabaret” or “My Fair Lady,” “Sweet Charity” doesn’t stand up well to an interpretation fueled by anything less than dance-driven perfection – which makes it an odd selection for the Festival Theater stage.

But you can let the dancing slide, there’s enough in the production to keep die-hard musical theater fans entertained.

Its chief virtue is a consistently charming and ultimately heartbreaking performance by Julie Martell as Charity Hope Valentine, the unlucky in love dance hall hostess who nonetheless presses ahead from one heartbreak to the next.

Martell, who is rarely off the stage, has all the bright-eyed optimism the character demands, tempered with just the right amount of world-weariness. Her performance of “If My Friends Could See Me Now” sets the bar high, and she meets it again and again, sinking to believable depths in “Where Am I Going” and yo-yoing back up to “I’m a Brass Band” before beginning her final descent.

She’s aided in her journey by cheeky fellow dance hall girls (Melanie Phillipson and Kimberley Rampersad) and Jay Turvey in a fine performance as the slightly skeevy but sentimental owner of the hall. Compelling turns come also from Jeremy Carver-James as Daddy Brubeck in the musical’s completely nonsensical LSD-inspired number “The Rhythm of Life” and Mark Uhre as the impossibly suave Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal.

MacDonald’s design of mobile metal, while certainly clean and compelling, seems devoid of his personal creative stamp. It’s also not helped a great deal by Cameron Davis’ often overly assertive subway-inspired projection design, which sometimes lacked finesse. As, to my surprise, did the playing of Paul Sportelli’s orchestra – at least on opening night.

Charlotte Dean’s period-perfect costumes and Bonnie Beecher’s sensitive lighting, on the other hand, were bright spots in a show that otherwise struggled to shine.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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