A Dancer’s Dream Musical

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MIlena Govich and Jamilson Stern are shining stars in "Sweet Charity."
Milena Govich stars as dance hall hostess Charity Hope Valentine in Lyric's "Sweet Charity."

BY CLIF’ WARREN

If there ever was a dancer’s dream musical, it’s “Sweet Charity.” Milena Govich shines, a bright new star in ascendancy, portraying dance hall hostess Charity Hope Valentine. Govich delivers all the high kicks, elegant extensions, and prancing rhythms with the tireless energy that formed the working mojo of America’s great choreographer, Bob Fosse.

Through the magical re-imagining of Fosse’s principal dance forms of the 60s–a vibrant emergent era of the Broadway musical, frequent Lyric Choreographer Ashley Wells, in her debut as Director Wells, brought in Randy Slovacek, who, in only eight days, served as choreographer to re-create a glowing tapestry, weaving together the exotic twists and turns and modal steps–including even ‘The Rich Man’s Shrug’–that the supporting cast, so carefully chosen, executes with finesse.

Cast opposite Govich, in the triple threat role of big city con man Charlie, Italian screen idol Vitorio Vidal, and appealing nerdnik Oscar Linquist, Jamison Stern, multi-experienced from many professional shows, who, like Govich, since her graduation from the University of Central Oklahoma in musical theatre, bridges the wide range from Broadway and tours to TV and special appearances.

Stern’s high energy level extends throughout “Sweet Charity” in all three supreme characterizations. And Govich and Stern possess powerful, clarion voices that rock the theatre.

Govich’s perfect enunciation and sparkling lyricism revive the standard songbook hit “If You Could See Me Now,” which she delivers from Vittorio’s boudoir. Stern’s expressive rejoinder, “Too Many Tomorrows” (already experienced by this still handsome yet fading screen star) conveys an authority that matches the robustness of Govich’s song, taken together, a sophisticated pairing.

With a Neil Simon script derived from Federico Fellini’s film “Nights in Cabiria,” along with the slangy lyrics of supreme songsmith Dorothy Fields (“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby,” “Closer Than Pages In A Book”) and the heavy, jazzy beats of the Cy Coleman score, Fosse could cut loose and create the perfect spectacle in “Sweet Charity” for his then-wife Gwen Verdon, who had come to the forefront as sexy Lolita in “Damn Yankees.”

American choreography paled until Fosse introduced exoticism into the mix. He added bumps, grinds, shimmies and thrusts that strippers, like Georgia Southern, Ann Corio, and Evelyn West, leading ecdysiasts of the ‘40s and ‘50s, charmed the in port sailors with (Gypsy Rose Lee was the tamest). These moves Fosse learned in his youth when he was a piano player in a burlesque theatre.

Fosse’s black attire, enigmatic pigeon-toed slump, and hat and cane—conventional   vaudeville props—formed his signature pose, one he repeatedly incorporated in his musicals. Wells nails all Fosse’s gimmicks.  Director Wells and crew nail the true Fosse feel.

Notable support in “Sweet Charity” comes from Vanita Harbour as Helene and Kathryn Mowat Murphy as Nickie when they lead chorines Audra Bryant, Lauren Johnson, Natasha Scearse and Alie Walsh in performing “Big Spender,” another memorable hit from the score. Soon a stylized, post modern, lowlife backdrop settles in to surround these women like Charity who nightly wear their hearts on their sleeves and wish for a better tomorrow.

The 2nd Act opens on an exemplary ‘60s hippie production number. Entitled “The Rhythm of Life,” Billy Porter is distinctive and commendable as Daddy Brubeck, who preaches a strong (satiric) sermon, admonishing his bead bedecked, liberated and laid back congregation, ultimately, to ditch the pot before the police raid. This number signals a plot move to an emphasis on comedy.

Stern as Oscar Lindquist further shows off his superb acting skill in a comic sketch involving a stuck elevator. Charity tenders the comfort claustrophobic Oscar needs. The two bond.

Finally Charity gains a glimmer of hope and keeps her positive energy flowing no matter what happens in numbers like “I’m A Brass Band.” But no true song hits anchor the second act.

Main reasons to add “Sweet Charity” to your entertainment calendar include not only brilliant performances, tour de force choreography that defines an era, but also sketches that will stick with you.  Be on the look out for Zsa Zsa-like Emily Peel, Hannah Meredith Killebrew as exotic Carmen, and the male standouts, Brian Barry, Matthew Sipress and Chris Castleberry.

But the number one reason is to take in the charming performance of Milena Govich, a full-bodied modern day version of a Vargas pinup (unlike predecessors Verdon or MacLaine), with equally full-bodied talents, who is at the top of her game.

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