Review: Sweet Charity at Heritage Players

By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy

Running Time: Approx. 2 hours and 40 minutes with one 15-minute intermission

Most of us just want to be loved, right? I say “most” because there are some folks out there who are content and happy (or claim they are) without the love of others. However, this is not the case with the title character of Heritage Players latest offering Sweet Charity, with a Book by Neil Simon and Music and Lyrics by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, respectively. This production is Directed and Choreographed by Timoth David Copney with Music Direction by Mari Hill.

Briefly, Sweet Charity concerns itself with the romantic goings on of Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer (a profession that teeters precariously on the line of prostitution) in a seedy dance hall in New York City. Her surroundings may be drab but Charity’s optimism, romanticism, and upbeat attitude seem to get her through tough times. She’s been dumped, robbed, and insulted by lovers and boyfriends but she still sees a better life for herself. She meets Oscar, a neurotic, shy fellow, is it possible she has found true love at last… or is the other shoe just waiting to drop?

Bailey Wolf as Ursula, Daniel Douek as Vittorio Vidal, and Katherine Sheldon as Charity, and Kamryn Polastre Scott as Doorman. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Set Design by Ryan Geiger is minimal but absolutely appropriate, using moving set pieces to represent various locations on a simple black stage. I don’t mind the black stage, but the stage is a bit unkempt with the use of sheets or curtains of different shades of black and different, ununiformed lengths which is a bit of a distraction. Overall, however, the set worked for this piece as there is heavy choreography and you don’t want a bulky set in the way of that. Geiger used his space wisely and the unkemptness may very well be a part of the design as a lot of the action takes place in the seedier-looking parts of New York City.

Andrew Malone’s and Lanoree Blake’s Costume Design is on point for this period, 1960s piece. Every stich of clothing on this ensemble is well thought-out and authentic to the time. The bright color palate, the styles and crazy prints, the hair… everything just oozed the mid to late 60s and I love it. Kudos to Malone and Blake for their efforts and superb design.

Mari Hill’s Music Direction is concise and she has this cast and orchestra sounding tight. Since quite a few of these songs are standards, it’s a good chance most or at least some of the audience will at least be familiar with the tunes but Hill doesn’t let that deter her and she has guided this ensemble to perform these songs well and true to the original compositions. The orchestra that has convened for this production is led by the able and well-apt Patty DeLisle, who doubles as both Conductor and Keyboards, sounds sweet and strong. The orchestra consists of: Will Zellhofer on Keyboards, Mari Hill, Matt Elky, Dan Longo, Katie Marcotte, and David Booth on Reeds, Erica Bright and Jon Bright on Trombone, Randy Whittenberger, Kevin Shields, and Allyson Wessley on Trumpet, Billy Georg on Percussion, Maxwell Kazanow on Guitar, and Thomas Jackson on Bass Guitar.

“I’m a Brass Band” with Katherine Sheldon as Charity and the Cast of Sweet Charity. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

It’s worth mentioning that Sweet Charity was given a successful 1969 film adaptation (depending on who you talk to) staring Shirley McClain and Chita Rivera (not to mention Sammy Davis, Jr. and Ricardo Montalbán) and directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse. That being said it, it can be a challenge to recreate a well-known piece and present it in a fresh light. Timoth David Copney stepped up and took on this challenge not only as Director but doubling as Choreographer and his efforts are not in vain. Copney presented this piece in a more traditional setting, as written, and didn’t mess much with the original script/score. His choreography is impeccable and is prominent in moving the story along. For “Rich Man’s Frug,” it’s clear he makes an homage to the film adaptation with near exact chorography. On a side note, Libby Burgess (Lead Frug Dancer) tears up the stage with concise and tight movement that adds great value to this intricate dance number. He knows his cast and has created movement that makes them shine rather than hinder their performances. That being said, it seems Copney concentrated mainly on choreography (because it really is brilliant) and less on blocking and scene work. The pacing is a bit lagging, especially in lengthy scenes with most of the ensemble onstage, but still, the story is so cleverly written, the dialogue helps with the pacing. Handmade signs between scenes poking out of the side of the stage are a bit hokey and barely legible if you are more than three rows back, but, thankfully, their not too, too important to the production. Overall, Copney’s efforts are commendable are and are to be applauded as it seems he has a good comprehension of both the text and the story as a whole making for a good showing.

“The Richman’s Frug” with the Cast of Sweet Charity, featuring Libby Burgess. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Moving on to the performance aspect of this production, I’d be amiss not to mention that the entire ensemble of this piece gives 100% effort and is dedicated to this piece and all should be commended for their efforts, including Apollo, the beautiful and well-behaved canine who makes a couple of cameos and is an absolute natural!

Taking on role of Vittorio Vidal, the Italian movie star with whom Charity has a chance encounter, is Daniel Douek, and he fully embodies this suave, yet tender character very nicely and exudes that beautiful balance of debonair playboy and lovelorn schoolboy giving an authentic and thoughtful performance, especially in his featured number, “Too Many Tomorrows.” Oscar, Charity’s main love interest, is played by Adam Abruzzo who plays this neurotic, shy character near perfectly. Abruzzo may not be the strongest, vocally, but his portrayal is delightful and his comedic timing is spot on making for a charming performance.

Anwar Thomas takes on the challenging role of Daddy Brubeck, the charismatic leader of the cult-ish religion of the Rhythm of Life, but he pulls it off quite well. His performance is confident as he tackles the facets of this kooky character and though, vocally, he could be stronger, especially in his featured number, the high-energy “The Rhythm of Life,” what he lacks in vocalese, he absolutely makes up for and shines in his dancing. This man is no joke when it comes to a dance number and he makes each move look effortless making for a strong performance, overall.

Katherine Sheldon as Charity Hope valentine. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Katherine Sheldon takes on the title role of Sweet Charity, otherwise known as Charity Hope Valentine, our upbeat, hopeful heroine. Sheldon seems to have a tight grasp of this character and plays her to the hilt. She portrays a good blend of optimistic innocence and a lifetime of broken hearts very well and it’s that perfect blend that makes this character work. It’s easy to see she’s worked hard for this role and her solo dancing and comedic timing is on point. She gives a good showing, vocally, in such numbers as the standard “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “Where Am I Going?”, but struggles a bit with the higher notes. However, that could very well be the result of her intense concentration on choreography, which she nails. Overall, Sheldon is confident and dedicating, making for a strong performance.

One highlight of this production is Jim Gerhardt, who takes on the role of Herman, the proprietor of the seedy dance hall ii which Charity works. This character certainly has a rough exterior, but deep down, is a big softy who cares about the girls who work at the hall and Gerhardt knocks it out of the ballpark with his portrayal giving us that perfect character in his mannerisms, stereo-typical “New Yorker” dialect, and his authenticity. Vocally, he shines, both while speaking and his featured musical number, “I Love to Cry at Weddings.” Gerhardt is certainly one to watch in this show.

Megan Mostow as Helene, Ashley Gerhardt as Niki, and Katherine Sheldon as Charity. Credit: Shealyn Jae Photography

Last but certainly not least, we have our hands down standouts Megan Mostow as Helene and Ashley Gerhardt as Nickie. These two ladies are superb in their roles and they work well off of each other making for a heartfelt and true performance that makes you want to be friends with both of them because you feel as though they’ll always have your back and that’s what makes a great portrayal. Mostow moves naturally onstage and embodies this character of Helene completely. Her delivery of the material is on point and it’s she’s comfortable with the character and has a strong presence making for a brilliant performance. Gerhardt, too, is confident and comfortable with and impeccable portrayal of this rough-around-the-edges character who has a heart of gold. Her dialect work is near perfect and she really has a good grasp on her character and her wants and needs.

Vocally, both actresses are powerhouses and their performances in numbers such as “There’s Got to Be Something Better Than This” and their featured parts in the popular and well-known “Big Spender” will make you stand up and take notice while the poignant “Baby Dream Your Dream” will have you near tears with their touching performance. Overall, Mostow and Gerhardt are two who bring this production to the apex and their dedication to their characters and the production as a whole is quite apparent. Kudos to both for jobs very well done.

Final thought…Sweet Charity is a fun romp through a colorful, jazzy bygone era of what seems like a simpler time with interesting fashion choices. The story is cute, but not extremely deep, but it’s witty and funny with a book by Neil Simon, so, you can’t go wrong! The music is damn catchy and a few of these tunes are recognizable standards and this production doesn’t skimp nor cut corners with the dancing. Most of the characters are relatable and it’s a piece with which anyone who has a love of theatre should be acquainted. I recommend checking it out! You won’t be sorry you did!

This is what I thought of Heritage Players production of Sweet Charity… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!

Sweet Charity will run through April 29 at Heritage Players in the Thomas-Rice Auditorium on the Spring Gove Hospital Campus, Catonsville, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door or online.

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