Charity Hope Valentine's love life might be compared to a hotel's revolving door. A guy checks in, a romantic relationship blossoms and everything seems rosy for a while. But then the inevitable happens. The romance fizzles and the guy dumps Charity. She's the perennial bridesmaid who never makes it to the altar.
Since the Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields musical made its Broadway premiere in 1966, “Sweet Charity” has enticed accomplished actresses hoping to play the title character, from Gwen Verdon and Juliet Prowse to Debbie Allen and Christina Applegate.
Lyric Theatre continues its 50th season this week with a production of “Sweet Charity” directed by Ashley Wells and starring Milena Govich. Not seen on the Lyric stage since 1982, “Sweet Charity” will also feature Vanita Harbour as Helene, Kathryn Mowat Murphy as Nickie and Jamison Stern as Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar. Randy Slovacek choreographs and David Andrews Rogers is music director.
Being cast as Charity was an unexpected surprise for Govich. Daughter of University of Central Oklahoma voice professor Marilyn Govich, the Los Angeles-based actress was back in Oklahoma last summer to watch her younger brother Mateja star as Tateh in the Lyric Theatre production of “Ragtime.”
“Despite the sheer terror it evokes, I said yes when (Lyric artistic director) Michael Baron asked if I'd be interested,” Govich said. “It's such a thrill. You get to be the heroine in a Neil Simon play, you're kicking over your head and doing all this awesome stylized (Bob) Fosse choreography.
“On top of that, you get to sing great Cy Coleman songs. It stretches every part of your range. There's also a lot of physical comedy which you really can't prepare for in advance because it reads differently than it plays. But we all came in having rehearsed the show in our own heads. Lyric offers us a very open environment to try different things.”
Wells' invitation to direct this production was also unexpected. She's choreographed several past Lyric productions and has also served as an associate artistic director. The famous phrase uttered by so many seasoned actors also applies to choreographers: “What I'd really like to do is direct.”
“When Michael (Baron) came in last year and I started assisting him, he was very gracious and caring,” Wells said. “Sometimes I'd ask if we could try something different (in rehearsal) and he would listen to some of my ideas. I had worked on a lot of Fosse shows so when he asked if I'd like to direct ‘Charity,' I said yes through my scared, gritted teeth.”
For “Sweet Charity,” Simon adapted Federico Fellini's screenplay of “The Nights of Cabiria,” the story of a prostitute who wanders the streets of Rome looking for true love. Unfortunately, she only finds heartbreak.
Simon changed the setting to New York City's Times Square and made Charity a dance hall hostess. She and fellow cohorts Nickie and Helene work for Herman, a taskmaster who runs the Fandango Ballroom.
“I haven't had to sell my body, but I'm lucky I've been able to pay my own bills through acting since I was 22,” Govich said with a laugh. “I can understand what Charity goes through, but what is so exciting about this story is that she gets frustrated and disappointed but she's never bitter. There's always this kernel of hope in everything she does.
“It's the push/pull in Charity that I love so much. The Fandango Ballroom is this dark, seedy place that Charity hates but she loves the friends who go through this with her. The interesting question is to what extent Charity operates in that nightlife.
“I can't quite reconcile how she could be sleeping with people for money and still have the outlook on life that she does. Charity doesn't react the way a lot of people would in similar circumstances. I think that's what makes people want to root for her, to see the joy through her life.”