If far fewer resources are now required to run the federal government, as the President and Congress seem to agree, what about classic Broadway musicals? The curious can test that theory by attending the Above the Curve Theatre production of “Sweet Charity”, playing at the Actors Workout Studio through April 24th.
This version of “Charity” is performed on a space hardly sufficient for a minimalist one-act, let alone a show that includes such expansive, high-spirited numbers as “Big Spender”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, and “The Rhythm of Life”. The dance routines are staged in tight quarters, which limit the range and frequency of high-leg kicks and other gymnastic feats.
The stripped-down approach extends to the accompanying music, an instrumental soundtrack, played at moderate volume, and the playbill, which does not the list either the names of the songs, nor which characters perform them. Anyone who plans to attend this production should first consult the “Sweet Charity” entry in Wikipedia.
Yet, despite the various limitations, the infectious charm of the performers, and their unabashed commitment to the material, make this production of “Sweet Charity” both a joy and a revelation. It turns out you don’t need a huge infusion of cash to stage a hit musical.
The original “Sweet Charity”, which debuted on Broadway in January 1966, was set entirely in New York, and followed the travails of a woman in her 20s who is paid to dance with men. As the years advance, Charity and her co-workers wonder if they will ever find the right guy and ever leave the business.
Nearly two years before “Hair” opened off-Broadway, “Sweet Charity”, book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, took early notice of the burgeoning counter-culture, especially with “The Rhythm of Life” and a dance number called “Rich Man’s Frug”. Apparently, the revolution was being co-opted long before car companies licensed songs by the Beatles and the Who.
Both of these numbers are marvelously performed by the Above the Curve cast. “Frug” is staged like a scene from Andy Warhol’s Factory; beautiful girls with vacant looks mechanically enact the dances steps of the day to a groovy, jazzy pop music arrangement. I could have easily watched it go on for another 10 minutes.
While faithful to the spirit of the show, and never condescending to women whose career aspirations and opportunities are pre-feminism, director Mark Robert Swiech also transposes the plotline to contemporary Los Angeles. There are references to Melrose Avenue and Fred Segal, Charity enrolls in Santa Monica College, and cell phones are a regular prop. The result is an effective hybrid; we don’t lose the New York, single girl-in-the-big-city context, and we also smile at the familiar locales and things.
Adrian Lee Borden’s Charity is one part cynic, two parts innocent, who retains the sense of humor and never-too-high expectations that allow the character to overcome disappointment. Borden and Peter Greathouse, who plays Oscar, Charity’s most promising love interest, play a masterful scene of comic neurosis while trapped inside an elevator. Tiffany Roberts’ Nickie and Joe Lorenzo as Herman stood out among the very good cast.
“Sweet Charity” is at the Actors Workout Studio, 4735 Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, through April 24th. Performances are Friday and Saturday nights at 8, and Sunday nights at 7. Tickets are $15 with reservations, and $20 at the door. For more information, call the box office at 818-506-3903