As Lyric Theatre's production of “Sweet Charity” opens, its engine is safely parked at the train station. The cast then busies itself with scenes that function as exposition, much like the hectic activity that accompanies passengers preparing to embark upon a journey filled with expectation.
We meet the title character, a girl whose goal in life is simply to be loved. For a brief moment, we believe she's found it, but Charlie, the guy whose name is tattooed on Charity's arm, dumps her into a lake and dashes off with her money.
We're subsequently introduced to Charity's co-workers at the Fandango Ballroom, a seedy dive where men pay for, well, let's call it companionship, with the establishment's dance hall hostesses.
The train slowly gathers speed as we learn more about Charity and her infatuation with Charlie in “You Should See Yourself.” By the time “Big Spender” comes along, a brilliant company number thanks to some clever wordplay by lyricist Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman's alluring melody, this rail journey is safely underway.
But it's not until the company tackles “Rich Man's Frug” that the production reaches full speed. This will be the first of several standout numbers choreographed by Randy Slovacek. “Sweet Charity” also marks Ashley Wells' directorial debut and it's a promising beginning.
Coleman's score to “Sweet Charity” remains one of his finest, with at least six of its musical numbers considered outright classics. David Andrews Rogers and his orchestra are a big part of this production's success, much of it attributable to the score's sterling orchestrations.
Unfortunately, the momentum stalls during many of the book scenes, a surprising discovery considering Neil Simon's contributions. There's also a studied feel about too many of the show's elements, a combination of opening night jitters and the cast's slight lack of confidence.
With her megawatt smile and Bob Fosse moves, Milena Govich dazzles during the show's iconic numbers. During quieter moments, though, one misses a much-needed vulnerability in Govich's portrayal.
In the first act showstopper, “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” Govich struggled with an uncooperative black top hat, which in turn contributed to the number's slightly frantic feel. More impressive was “I'm a Brass Band,” Charity's glorious expression of glee that she's again fallen in love. And when high stepping ensemble members join in, the electricity is palpable.
Vanita Harbour (Helene) and Kathryn Mowat Murphy (Nickie) fully invest themselves as Charity's dance hall cohorts, with sarcastic or infectiously sassy line deliveries that earn big laughs. Then, with Charity in tow, the trio dreams about securing more respectable jobs in “There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” a number performed with more enthusiasm than polish.
Billy Porter is splendid as Daddy Brubeck, the leader of a questionably progressive church. The wisecracking evangelist lifts “The Rhythm of Life” to a glorious celebration that in some ways looks ahead to the 1968 musical “Hair.”
Jamison Stern has the arduous task of portraying three men in Charity's life: the cash-strapped Charlie, the suave film star Vittorio Vidal and the bumbling but lovable Oscar. His ability to convey Oscar's panic when he and Charity get stuck in an elevator is priceless, although his Vidal edged precariously close to caricature. Trumping them all was Stern's terrific voice.
By the time you read this, the company will have two performances under its belt. That should raise their confidence level and allow them to relax in the humorous exchanges that are critical to making “Sweet Charity” a success. By then, this train should be unstoppable.
— Rick Rogers