With such an upbeat name, could Charity Hope Valentine be anything but a buoyant Pollyanna and a hopeless romantic?
Through disappointments and setbacks, when Charity is knocked down she simply gets up, dusts herself off and moves on.
The ups and downs of this irrepressible young optimist lie at the core of the Rivertown Theaters’ production of “Sweet Charity,” opening Friday for a three-weekend run.
Nominated for nine Tony Awards when it premiered on Broadway in 1966, the original production of “Sweet Charity” was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and starred his dancer wife, Gwen Verdon. The book was by Neil Simon with lyrics by Dorothy Fields set to music by Cy Coleman.
As a dancer for hire in a Times Square nightclub, Charity dreams of a better life. Along her journey she finds love, loses love, finds it again and loses it again. But, through it all, she remains cheerful and hopeful, knowing in her heart that everything is going to turn out just fine in the end.
Typical of any musical production with Bob Fosse’s signature on it, “ ‘Sweet Charity’ is a very dance-heavy show,” in the words of the show’s choreographer, Caroline Cuseo.
A recent transplant who arrived in the New Orleans area from Oregon about 18 months ago and has choreographed six productions for Rivertown, Cuseo is tasked with ensuring that the musical is as true to the Fosse style as possible while still allowing for some degree of flexibility.
“I’ve done the best I can to be very respectful to what he has set and created and made so iconic for everyone,” Cuseo said. Fosse’s style, she noted, “is very provocative and very sexual. … It has a lot of the traditional turned-in knees and feet and rolled-over shoulders and the very mime-like articulation of the hands.
“So I have kept the iconic elements but the way in which the audience is going to experience them is going to give the show a fresh take and be different,” Cuseo added.
One of the show’s highlights, Cuseo pointed out, is a number titled “Rich Man’s Frug” that has 18 dancers sharing the stage.
“This is like a living, breathing caricature of the Fosse style,” she said. “They start out very up tight and rigid and then, as the night wears on and the more drinks they have, they break out and lose themselves on the dance floor. By the end of the piece, it’s a big, fun party and a call and echo sort of thing and we have decided to go all out with it.”
The role of Charity is a challenge, says actress Shelbie Mac.
“I’ve been watching videos of Gwen Verdon in the role to see if I could do what she was doing,” Mac said. “I have to have empathy for the characters I play; otherwise it’s hard to commit to what they’re doing on stage. … I am very much a person who guards her heart, and so playing a character who wears it on her sleeve makes it challenging. We want the audience to feel sorry for her; to feel empathy for her and her naïveté .”
A mezzo-soprano, Mac’s favorite solo in the production is “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”
Others in the main cast include Ken Goode Jr. as Oscar, one of Charity’s boyfriends; Louis Dudoussat as Herman, the club manager; Jermaine Keelen as a charismatic preacher, Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck; and Kelly Fouchi and Jessica Mixon as dancers Nickie and Helene.
Gary Rucker is the director, Alan Payne is musical director for the 14-piece onstage band and the set design is by Eric Porter. Costumes are designed by Linda Fried.