For their end-of-summer musical, the Herndon-based Elden Street Players have reached back to 1966 and "Sweet Charity." The show features memorable songs from Dorothy Fields (lyrics) and Cy Coleman (music) and the stylishly sharp, abstractly erotic choreography Bob Fosse created for his wife, Gwen Verdon, the original star. The music and dance propelled the show through two Broadway runs (a third is on the way) and the Shirley MacLaine film version.
The show is an odd mixture, combining social mores of 1940s films with jazzy 1950s music, expressed with Fosse's then-cutting-edge dance. Elden Street's director, Ellen Dempsey, has focused on the show's strengths, presenting "Sweet Charity" strictly as a period piece. She keeps it mod but not modern. The results are mixed, primarily because of the uneven talents of the cast and musicians. Dramatic momentum isn't achieved until late in the first act, a long time to wait in a three-hour show.
Maria Watson is Charity Valentine, a lovelorn dance hall hostess with poor taste in men, always falling for the types who won't settle down. When Charity finally meets a nice guy, a fella who thinks she's "sweet" and is unaware of her profession, she finally seems on track for a happy ending.
Story writer Neil Simon confusingly pulled his punches with Charity. The show's ambiance and plot lines, plus Charity's eager willingness to offer her body to a passing film star, make it seem that her true profession is much older than that of a dancer for hire. But Simon presumably feared 1966 audiences wouldn't find that acceptable for the star of a musical (unless she met a tragic fate, of course), so he teases us with it until finally having Charity state emphatically that she sells only dances.
Still, he has given Charity a "hooker with a heart of gold" persona, and the old-fashioned code required a less-than-happy ending, which Simon provides, only to cheat again and tack on a hopeful coda. Perhaps because the writer couldn't play it straight, Dempsey's attitude seems to be "to heck with the story, let's dance." So this production provides mostly surface shtick, a notable exception being Todd Apple's sensitive portrayal of Charity's love interest, the nebbishy Oscar.
Watson uneasily toes the delicate line between Charity's innocence and cynicism. But her dancing, choreographed by Stefan Sittig, successfully captures the essence of Fosse's sharp-angled, finger-snapping, limbs-akimbo design. Unfortunately, Watson never drops the outsize movement and exaggerated facial mugging, appropriate for a large theater but artificial when seen up close, as it is here, draining away much of Charity's warmth.
Watson finally blossoms when Apple shows up and joins her in song at the end of Act 1. That tune, "I'm the Bravest Individual," is usually overshadowed by such hit songs as "Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now," but the chemistry between Watson and Apple makes it a highlight.
Sittig admirably pays tribute to Fosse while working within the constraints of the Industrial Strength Theatre's shallow performance floor. He has found middle ground for the varied levels of talent in the ensemble, particularly evident in the sexy, provocative production number "Big Spender," one of Fosse's signature pieces.
Maggie Allman and Michelle Jones provide enjoyable moments as weary but hopeful dance hall dolls Nickie and Helene, shining in "Baby Dream Your Dream." Another strong point is the Act 2 opener, as Terry Spann leads the ensemble in the unusual hippie dance number, "The Rhythm of Life."
Lowlights include Nathan Drost butchering big notes in the lovely "Too Many Tomorrows" and much of the music played by Jo Ellen Richardson's frequently off-key, off-tempo band. It would be sweetly charitable to the audience for the musicians to rehearse before tomorrow's performance.
"Sweet Charity" continues through Aug. 21 at the Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and next Thursday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and information, call 703-481-5930 or visit www.eldenstreetplayers.org.