If ever a musical could be described as a theatrical curio, it's Sweet Charity. With music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, the 1966 Bob Fosse/Gwen Verdon project was a fair-sized Broadway hit. Its unlikely source material was Federico Fellini's screenplay for his 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, which librettist Neil Simon reworked into a kinder, gentler tale, with Fellini's Roman prostitute reimagined as a New York City "taxi dancer." (Read: hooker with a heart of gold, seeking love.)
Fellini allowed the adaptation but disavowed any affiliation with the musical. Yet Simon's book holds up unexpectedly well, and 46 years on it reads as a sardonic, surrealistic artifact, frozen in time between the Broadway musical's golden age and the ascendancy of Stephen Sondheim.
As Keeton Theatre's new production confirms, curios need careful dusting off, and director Jamie London handles that task well, assembling a generally competent cast of 30 and playing the period elements courageously and without inhibition. Choreographer Kate Adams ably re-creates elements of the distinctive, somewhat suggestive Fosse style.
The score includes two songs that gained popularity outside of the show: "Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now." Otherwise, Coleman and Fields give us a smorgasbord of interesting if musically aloof numbers. They include "Rich Man's Frug," a truly oddball spoof on '60s dance styles; "The Rhythm of Life," in which some hepcats conduct a church revival; "Baby, Dream Your Dream," which recalls the style of Kander and Ebb, composers of Cabaret (which opened on Broadway later the same year as Sweet Charity); and the urgent trio "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This."
"Isn't this gay?" Charity says, placing us back in an era when that word meant "lighthearted and carefree." (People also sent telegrams back then. And used answering services.) Mallory Gleason plays our goodhearted heroine, and there are few actresses around with her combination of great looks, flexible vocals and solid dancing chops. Plus she lends personal charm to the little-girl-lost role, which is very important since Charity is no feminist and struggles with self-esteem. In a big, challenging role Fosse envisaged for Verdon (then his wife), and which was later enacted in the movies by Shirley MacLaine, Gleason downplays the ditz factor, performing with spirit and physical power.
The chorus line of Charity's fellow taxi-dancers comes in all shapes and sizes, and there's no denying their spunk. Stacie Riggs, as Nickie, is the standout — a tall, nimble actress and hoofer with obvious talent and theatrical flair. Tonya Pewitt also earns high marks for her singing and dancing.
There are also good performances by Daniel Collins as Vittorio Vidal, a parody of an Italian film star; Bobby Milford as "high priest" Daddy Brubeck; and Tony Nappo as the club owner.
Macon Kimbrough is Charity's eccentric love interest, Oscar. His effort is earnest, but he's plainly miscast, which undermines the dramatic force of the denouement.
No matter. Gleason & Co. successfully restore most of the luster to this vintage bauble of a musical.
First produced in 1960, Harold Pinter's The Caretaker is one of the late master's enduring works. Through the decades its inscrutable dramatis personae have been portrayed by illustrious actors such as Alan Bates, Donald Pleasence, Robert Shaw, Colin Firth, Patrick Stewart and Kyle MacLachlan.
Pinter's works are largely absent from Nashville's commercial stages. Tennessee Repertory Theatre's 2003 mounting of Betrayal was the company's first and only foray into the playwright's absurdist world.
Now White Orchard Theater, under the direction of Irina Sundukova, gives us a Caretaker deserving of respect, mounted at "O" Gallery at Marathon Village, a venue dedicated primarily to the works of Russian artist Olga Alexeeva. Surrounded by striking realistic and abstract paintings, an equally dedicated cast stoically works through the elusive motivations and oblique characterizations in Pinter's script, an unlikely tale of two brothers and their relationship to a homeless fellow.
Veteran thespian Pat Reilly is a natural as Davies, a gabby, rather annoying down-and-outer who is brought in from the rain by Aston, a quiet, seemingly pensive man, played with mystery by David Chattam. Aston's brother Mick (Jonah Kraut) enters later and breaks up the aimless chatter with menace and harsh inquisitions, leaving in his wake a sufficient puzzle regarding Pinter's thematic intentions. (Or is it all simply about communication?)
Crafted originally for three acts but played out here in two, The Caretaker offers a singular challenge for hardworking thespians, met worthily by the White Orchard team. It's certainly deserving of a look by theatergoers unafraid of more serious-minded material. The production continues through Saturday, Nov. 10, at 1305 Clinton St.
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