Just as hunger is the best appetizer, so can low expectations portend a surprisingly enjoyable evening. With neither great love for the 1966 musical Sweet Charity nor great hope for straw-hat talent, I approached the Apple Hill Playhouse with some trepidation. But the company is more supple than I expected, and the material more nostalgically charming than even its creators probably imagined.
History lesson: Gifted workaholic Bob Fosse staged and directed his original conception, inspired by Federico Fellini's 1957 film, Nights of Cabiria, about a prostitute in 1950s Rome. Moved to 1960s New York, Sweet Charity chronicles the tales of a "dance-hall hostess" (wink wink). Book by Neil Simon; music, Cy Coleman; lyrics, Dorothy Field.
The show has such cute straining-for-relevance-in-the-'60s-culture big-ensemble numbers as a Mod-ish "Rich Man's Frug" and — a year before Hair spilled peace, love and understanding off-Broadway — the hippie-ish "Rhythm of Life." And echoing the spirit of Cabiria, love is celebrated with a brisk march, "I'm a Brass Band."
Apple Hill's own band is less triumphant, but it fits the half-cocked quality of the Fan-Dango Ballroom and its denizens. Similarly, the ladies of the play are younger and prettier than Charity's original ladies of the night, but they manage to be credibly menacing in the show's hit song, "Big Spender."
Kelli Brisbane Harster, sweetly pert in the demanding title role, is well matched by the versatile Rob Jessup, who plays her various men on a broad continuum of assholism. The two handily switch from slapstick and farce to tenderness and romance. Also notable are Meghan Ginley and Leyna McCarthy as Charity's buddies and soloists in the show's ensemble, while Rob Stull does double duty as bandleader/keyboardist and the Fan-Dango's sleazy boss (he's also music director). Director Brad Dell has great support from choreographer Laura Wurzell channeling Fosse, stage manager Emily Springer, and set designer Jennifer M. James.
An amusing pastiche from the past, Sweet Charity doesn't need a lot of high polish to entertain.