DANBURY — In 1957, the waifishly beautiful Italian actress Giulietta Massina starred in the film Nights of Cabiria, which was written and directed by her husband, Federico Fellini. The movie told the sad tale of a good hearted and ever hopeful prostitute, who was abused and then abandoned by the men she loved.
Nine years later choreographer Bob Fosse conceived the idea of turning the story into a Broadway musical as a vehicle for his own wife, Gwen Verdon. Neil Simon wrote the book , Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields supplied the songs, and with the role of Cabiria the hooker changed to Charity the Times Square Taxi Dancer, Sweet Charity was born.
Like Fellini’s movie, the play opens with Charlie, Charity’s no-good sponge of a boyfriend, shoving her into a lake and running off with her purse. She returns to the dance hall and her pseudo family — the girls, the manager and the bouncer — asserting her belief that one day she will find true love and escape this life.
Eventually after a degrading experience with a Hollywood movie star, she meets Oscar Lindquist, a shy tax accountant, when they are stuck in an elevator together. The second act follows them through a progression of dates where it becomes clear that there is chemistry between them. Afraid to tell him the truth of what she does for a living, Charity pretends she works in a bank. Eventually she resolves to be honest, and confesses the truth. Oscar then confesses that he already knew; he had followed her to her job one day. But he doesn’t care. He loves her, and he wants to marry her.
Unfortunately this is a Fellini story, through and through. Right after a raucous good bye party thrown at the dance hall, Oscar realizes that he can’t marry her. The thought of all the men she had been with was just too big an elephant in the bedroom. Instead, he throws her into the lake.
But at least he didn’t steal her purse. Charity may emerge dripping, but she still has hope.
She’s not the brightest light in the ceiling, and the lies she tells are fairly obvious to those who know her, but Charity projects a tarnished dignity that makes you care what happens to her, and causes you to wish Oscar were not such a wuss.
Danbury’s Musicals At Richter has chosen this for its season finale, starring Lauren Nicole Sherwood as the hapless hoofer. Thomas J. Byrne plays Oscar like he’s right out of Lake Wobegon, while the cast is enriched by an assortment of dancers and street people, of whom I especially liked Janina Reiner as Nickie, Alyssa Sarnoff as Carmen, and Stephanie Sands as Helene. Also, when Charity and Oscar attend a service of the hippie infused “Church of the Rhythm of Life,” I was really taken with Stacey Snyder as Mama Brubeck, the church leader with a delightfully powerful voice.
The dancing was enjoyable, and the show was entertaining. But in the end, like a Fellini movie, it was still sad.
(Performances continue at Richter Center for the Arts, 100 Aunt Hack Road in Danbury, through this weekend. Curtain will be August 8-10, at 8:30 pm. Grounds open for picnics at 7:15. Visit MusicalsAtRichter.com or call 203-748-6873 for reservations and/or additional information.)