Review: No emotional muscle behind 'Sweet Charity'

Well, I may have been the only one of more than 4,600 theatergoers Tuesday night at Starlight Theatre thinking about an old Italian movie.

But there I was, recalling one of the truly great films, Federico Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria," the source material from which "Sweet Charity" was derived. Fellini gave us a poignant tale about a naive hooker who believes she can experience true love if she just finds the right man. She never does, of course, but despite all of her disastrous, humiliating emotional encounters she holds on to an indomitable spirit and wins the viewers' collective heart.

The 1966 Americanized musical, conceived by Bob Fosse and outfitted with a vaguely jazzy score by Cy Coleman and an occasionally clever book by Neil Simon, follows the Fellini movie in a general way but mainly succeeds in trivializing a deeply humanistic work of art. Cabiria becomes Charity, who is no longer a prostitute but a "dance hall hostess" whose goofy personality is supposedly so charming that we'll happily overlook her unrelenting superficiality.

Fosse designed the show around the skills of his wife, Gwen Verdon, but the current tour offers in her place Paige Davis, whose work is competent and passionless. She can sing and dance and looks great in a short red dress but there's no emotional muscle behind the performance.

The production offers one bright spot, however -- Guy Adkins as Oscar, the nebbish accountant who falls in love with Charity and whose absurdly idealized view of her reflects a delusional state of mind. Adkins shows up, thankfully, towards the end of Act 1 and when he does the whole enterprise comes to life. An extended sequence in which Charity and the claustrophobic Oscar are trapped on an elevator is a little comic masterpiece showcasing Adkins' formidable physical skills and dead-on comic timing.

The excellent Richard Ruiz pops up as Herman, the supposedly heartless dance-hall manager who reveals in a number towards the end of the show that he "loves to cry at weddings." Less successful is Steve Wilson as Vittorio Vidal, an Italian film star who takes a passing interest in Charity. There's nothing specifically wrong with his performance but a sequence in his bedroom suite that occupies a big chunk of the first act just doesn't click.

Offering solid support are Bridget Berger and Kisha Howard as two of Charity's dance-hall colleagues who treat the protagonist's fantasies of marriage with the appropriate sarcasm and ridicule.

Physically, the production is easy on the eyes, thanks principally to David Grill's lighting scheme and William Ivey Long's costumes.

"Sweet Charity" runs through Sunday at Starlight Theatre. $9-$70;; 816-363-7827.