The girl who couldn’t hold on to a guy is the victorious heroine of Sweet Charity, on stage of the equally spunky and iconic Rockwell Theater at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland. The colorful and groovy Broadway and film hit showcases Point Park University student talent under the savvy direction of returning Michael Rupert in a Conservatory Theatre Company production.
The mind-blowing 1960’s are calling! Sweet Charity opened on Broadway in 1969 and has almost been continually produced by leading international companies. At the Playhouse, the spot on professional band, ensconced on the second level of Johnmichael Bohach’s inventive set, is led by frequent Playhouse musical director Camille Rolla. A huge arch echoes both the Rockwell mid-century interior and Central Park’s tunnels while a gritty framework and understage evokes the city’s dark corners and elevated train trestles. Costumes range from everyday to evening wear, so there’s no shortage of flower power, fringe, mini-dresses, sequins, and outrageous wigs in Michael Montgomery’s designs.
Charity Hope Valentine’s very name reassures us that all will be well and even failed romances and turbulent times are wrought with lessons that strengthen us. The “It Girl” and shining star of Sweet Charity is graduating PPU senior Jasmine Overbaugh. As resilient and charming as the venue itself, Overbaugh takes a classic role of a Times Square “taxi-dance” girl (who provides other “services”) and runs with it from the moment she steps on stage–and almost immediately is pushed into the Central Park lake by male companion who runs away (for the last time) with her cash. Still, she writes off such incidents off as the “fickle finger of fate.” As Charity explores the wilds of New York City, Overbaugh is on stage during most every scene. Her engaging singing, outstanding dancing, and comic pratfalls connect with the audience and we look forward to what this young artist does next.
The Neil Simon book and the 1960’s style of Sweet Charity supports a story as old as (real) time: The girl doesn’t always get the guy. Or perhaps any guy. The story is one of self-exploration and experiences that inform Charity’s life journey. On a first date, she winds up at a “church of the month,” a hippy, cultish group meeting under the Manhattan Bridge. She even stays overnight in the apartment of a dashing Italian movie star between getting dumped. However, she struts and taunts with “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” Despite tumbling into bodies of water–twice–and suffering the sexism, pay inequity, and stereotyping that fueled the “women’s movement,” she picks herself up and starts all over and over again as young single woman trying to find her way.
One wants to rewind or request more reprises as the show is so jam-packed with hits by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields including “Big Spender,” “There’s Gotta be Something Better than This,” and “I’m a Brass Band.” Choreographer Jim Cooney has an imaginative blast with most all the numbers. On two classics he pays homage to Bob Fosse’s original choreography. He summons the show’s original moves for the iconic “Big Spender” featuring the dance hall “taxi girls” and the fascinating postures of “Rich Man’s Frug”. The cast expertly executes Fosse’s signature shoulders, wrists and hips with his obligatory knee and ankle angles.
Jasmine’s fellow cast members are superb, too, singing and dancing their way to graduation, auditions, and the next show. Gianni Annesi (Helene) and Jane Zogbi (Nickie) both make their PPU musical debuts and stand out in their duet “Baby, Dream Your Dream”. When Overbaugh joins them in “…Better than This,” this triple threat of strong women owns the show with their song and dance acumen.
Lauren Lerant, also a senior, leads the cast in “Rich Man’s Frug” with all those Fosse moves and high-style hair swinging. Atiauna Grant steps out of the ensemble as The Good Fairy with some fine attitude as she doesn’t settle on a typical “happy ending” for the ingenue.
When the entire 31-member cast is dancing, it’s just delightful with rising stars in the spotlight conjuring their future stage careers. They depict sardine-like straphangers on a subway car, self-absorbed New Yorkers who try not to “get involved,” haughty party-goers, and the city’s working class cops, waiters, as well as the Fandango dance hall girls.
Now, here’s to all the boys–solid and charming characterizations and performances by: Michael Joseph Krut as Charity’s boyfriend Oscar; Kevin Gilmond as Charity’s boss Herman; Russell Badalamenti as sauve film actor Vittorio Vidal; and David Gretchko as the Rhythm of Life congregation leader Daddy. Ensemble charmers included Daddy’s assistants Nikky Robinson and Ben Northrup, who also appears as Marvin, a dance hall regular who fancies Charity.
In deference to the entire and almost constantly moving and costume-changing cast, it’s only right to list all the others for their energy, artistry, and many roles here. Caroline Hitesman is cool and classy as Vittorio’s Ursula. Ladies of the ensemble include: Sierra Barnett (dance captain), KellyAnn Coyle (Alice), Halle Mastroberardino (new girl Rosie), Hailie Hagedorn (Frenchy), Sarah Martinez (Carmen), Sophie Ankin, Mackenzie Manning, Maddy Miller, and Kyra Smith.
The gentlemen are also impressive in many multiple roles: Kurt Kemper (solo tenor), Eric Freitas (Monte the Cop), Liron Blumenthal, Peter Brannigan, William Bureau, Jared Thomas Roberts, Austin Sultzbach, and Jacob Wasson, and Austin Trynosky (swing).
It’s always joyful to again find PPU students still singing and dancing their hearts out. And it’s bittersweet, too, as the university will brand its new Playhouse facility downtown within a few years. (This alumna and writer proudly discloses that I wrote my first reviews for The Globe, the student newspaper there, so the Playhouse is in my DNA, too.)
Sweet Charity has five more performances, March 23-26 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Take a friend, someone you love, or, better yet, go it alone. You’ll be just fine! Guarantee you’ll dance onto Craft Avenue as you head for home and add the 1969 film version to your watch list. Check out the production details and great ticket prices of $10 to $24 at: PittsburghPlayhouse.com.
Photos courtesy of John Altdorfer.