nytheatre.com review by Melanie N. Lee
July 29, 2012
Working within the fledgling New Haarlem Arts Theatre, a professional resident company at City College of New York (CCNY), director Julio Agustin envisions the classic musical play Sweet Charity as a Latina story. Inspired by the romantic travails of Jennifer Lopez, Eva Longoria, Rita Hayworth, and other Hispanic divas, Agustin gives birth to "Cari," or Caridad Esperanza Valentin, translated from Charity Hope Valentine. The resulting production is lively, funny, quirky, and well-danced. Yet, for me it lacks power—not because of the Latinization, but because of its lead performer and/or because of the original show itself.
Sweet Charity, based upon the 1957 Federico Fellini film Nights of Cabiria about a prostitute looking for love, was reinvented in 1966 by Broadway director/choreographer Bob Fosse as the story of a Times Square taxi dancer looking for love. Agustin sticks to the basic script and songs, with a slight twist to the ending. Caridad, in her red sleeveless minidress and a heart tattoo on her arm, longs to find a worthy man and escape her sleazy job. Her cynical friends, whose work often ventures beyond mere dancing, pooh-pooh her wide-eyed hope and innocence. Meanwhile, Caridad is robbed by her parasitic live-in boyfriend, charmed by a suave, muscular celebrity, and financially depleted by street beggars. But when a plain-but-honest nebbish shows genuine interest in her, can Cari eject her past and live happily ever after?
The Latin touches add flavor to this work. Salsa music plays over the speakers until the small jazz band takes over. Dancers carry oft-bilingual signs that accentuate the action, including one sign declaring that our heroine seeks to be "Amada/Loved." The motley crowd—rich people, poor people, a girl in plaid school uniform, a man walking a dogless leash—peppers the dialogue with Spanish phrases.
Lainie Munro's choreography is vibrant and sharp. (I imagine she retained some of the original Fosse steps.) Mary Myers' excellent costumes show a wide range of styles, colors, and characters, from the chic to the sleazy. Patrice Andrew Davidson designed the wonderfully sparse sets that suggest nightclubs, clothes closets, an elevator, a rooftop.
On the whole, the cast sings well the familiar songs: the jaded taxi dancers wheedling their customers with "Big Spender"; Cari celebrating her fickle good luck with "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "I'm a Brass Band"; Nickie, Helene, and Cari castigating their tawdry life with "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This"; Nickie and Helene questioning Cari's optimism—and their own dreams of the respectable life—in "Baby, Dream Your Dream"; Cari briefly showing introspection in "Where Am I Going?"
I especially enjoyed Cedric Leiba Jr. as the voluptuous film star Vittorio Vidal and Jasmine Romero as his feisty on-again, off-again girlfriend Ursula. Tiffany Caserta makes an impressive figure as the Santeria priestess "Mama" (a feminization of cult leader "Daddy"), but her "Rhythm of Life," sung in its the original key, is way too low for her, and the song feels rushed. Jeff Wojcicki performs quite well as the Anglo straight-laced Oscar Lindquist, whom Caridad meets at the 92nd Street Y. Allicia Lawson as Cari's dance-hall friend Nickie has good stage presence, and Dennis Wit as Herman, the pushy boss, has some humorous moments. Aili Venho as Helene does a pretty good job at cynicism. Adan Jimenez is aptly aloof and cold as Cari's first boyfriend Charlie.
Edlyn Gonzalez, hailing from Puerto Rico, makes her New York debut in her first starring role as Charity/Caridad. She's talented, and I enjoyed her performance, but not as much as I wanted to. She acts and dances fairly well. Her singing is decent but not strong; I kept wondering if her body mike was working. She needs to enunciate more; at one point she seemed to say she was "going to find some kosher" but I think she said "culture." I know who Charity is supposed to be, but I kept wondering "Who is she?" as interpreted by this actress. What inhabits her? What drives her? There's not enough "there" there, nor enough "oomph." Sweet Charity is a star vehicle, and Gonzalez lacks that power for now. In time she will develop it.
Perhaps it's not all Gonzalez's fault, or even director Agustin's. The star power of more famous predecessors may have overshadowed a flaw in Charity Hope Valentine as a character: she doesn't seem to want anything, except romance, marriage, and escape from her job. Other musical theater heroines who want a man want something else besides. Maria of West Side Story wants peace in the streets. Maria of The Sound of Music wants joy, freedom, fun, and song. Nellie of South Pacific wants to bolster the troops. Madame Rose of Gypsy wants applause and attention. Who is Charity when the man goes away? Maybe that's the unrealized question that haunts this musical, hinted at in the song "Where Am I Going?" Even if she is sweet, generous, and hopeful, maybe it's Charity herself who has little "there" there.
These concerns aside, Sweet Charity is worth seeing for its dances, song, humor, and in this case, added ethnic flavor.