Exhibitionism

Local Arts Reviews

Exhibitionism

Sweet Charity: So Much to Give

Paramount Theatre,

through May 19

Running Time: 2 hrs, 35 min

Brassy. It's a sound and it's an attitude, and there's plenty of both on display in Austin Musical Theatre's production of Sweet Charity. The former can be heard the instant that musical director Fred Barton strikes up the band: Seven trumpets blast out the show's signature tune, "Big Spender," filling the Paramount Theatre with sharp, vibrant sound, and they keep powering the 15-piece ensemble throughout the show, pumping up Cy Coleman's bouncy score with musical muscle and pizzazz.

The latter is, well, all over Scott Thompson and Richard Byron's staging of this 1960s musical. The dancers in the Fan-Dango Ballroom -- where our heroine, Charity Hope Valentine, gets paid to trip the light fantastic with New York's lonely and lascivious -- are as cocky as they come, strutting their stuff with a spunk that says they know you want what they got, but if you sidle up too close they'll snap it off. That goes double for the team of Nickie and Helene, who, as played by Deanna Dys and Elise Neal, consistently deliver one-two punches of saucy sass. Then there's Herman, their bear of a boss, all cheroot-chompin', penny-pinchin' gruffness in the roly-poly frame of Gerry Vichi, and Big Mama Rhythm, the flower-power flim-flam artist selling the secret of life under a bridge, who, in the person of Coty Ross (filling in for an ailing Jacqui Cross), had a voice that spanned the Hudson.

And there's the wealth of bold, sensual dance, lovingly drawn from the Bob Fosse treasure chest. Thompson and Byron animate number after number with their signature stylishness, but they offer an added kick here with J. Kathleen Watkins' re-staging of "Big Spender" and "Rich Man's Frug" from Fosse's original choreography. The company slinks through those numbers on a sexy slow burn, their arms fluidly waving from side to side like willows in the wind, with statuesque Elizabeth Mills, boasting a long braid of hair that she snaps like a whip, leading the "Frug" like a warrior princess.

In this show, even the chrome is brassy, given the way set designer Christopher McCollum wittily uses it to announce a certain kind of Sixties chic in interior design, in this case, for the bachelor pad of foreign film heartthrob Vittorio Vidal (David Hess, oozing charm as slick as his hair and alternately befuddled and bemused by our gal Charity). In fact, the show's whole approach to design is a brassy embrace of Sixties style, from McCollum's wall-o-Warhol, with Vittorio's face reproduced à la Andy in a floor-to-ceiling grid, to Neal Teguns' heavily fringed and flared, let-the-sunshine-in costumes to Kathryn Eader's Day-Glo lighting, which shines on the Fan-Dango dancers' sequined-within-an-inch-of-their-lives mini-dresses to literally dazzling effect.

Brassiest of all, however, is Charity herself, as embodied by the remarkable Leslie Stevens. Like the cockeyed optimist she plays, Stevens has so much to give and she just gives it away, but where Charity is giving her heart, Stevens is free with her belter's voice and dancer's grace and million-watt smile that she can't seem to suppress. Her Charity may get forlorn or dejected, but a grin is always popping back onto her face. It's a sign of Stevens' natural effervescence, as if a fountain of champagne is perpetually bubbling within her. No wonder she charms the skittish Oscar (an appealingly neurotic John Bisom); she leaves you giddy.

By the time we reach the second act number "I'm a Brass Band," with Stevens doing high kicks that bring her knee up to her forehead, it feels as if we're in the midst of one, a band that, to mix a musical metaphor, is led by 76 trombones, with 110 cornets right behind. The thrill that comes from that bright, full, flashy, splashy sound is the feeling you get from this Charity, and to coin a phrase, how sweet it is.

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