Sour Notes, Stumbling Dancers Spoil WaterTower Theatre’s Sweet Charity

WaterTower Theatre in Addison has trouble getting musicals right and just about every aspect of its current production of Sweet Charity is wrong. That’s being charitable. Actors who can’t sing. Dancers with no sense of rhythm. A set better suited for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. So much dark lumber under the lumbering choreography of director Michael Serrecchia.

Whitney Hennen, in a beige wig that forms a cone at the top and spaniel ears on the sides, stars as Charity Hope Valentine, the Manhattan dance hall floozy looking for love. In her Betty Boop voice, Hennen is so starved for breath when she sings, she barely makes it to the end of a phrase without gasping. Her Charity isn’t the life-hardened waif we remember from Gwen Verdon’s performance in the original in 1966, Shirley MacLaine’s in the 1969 movie or even Christina Applegate’s Tony-nominated Charity in the 2005 Broadway revival. Hennen’s is a childlike Alice in Wonderland, twirling giddily down rabbit holes into seedy bars and one-nighters with oafs like greasy Italian movie star Vittorio (Luke Longacre, who doubles as Charity’s nebbish boyfriend Oscar, done as Sheldon from Big Bang Theory).

Backed by Mark Mullino’s anemic five-piece band — the trumpet player never hits the right note, but damn, if he doesn’t blow them hard — the cast seems under-rehearsed and just … odd. Several of the girls in the “Big Spender” number looked terrified on opening night and not from the difficulty of the dance steps. There weren’t any. They just draped themselves limply over a wooden rail, like tired nags nosing for oats on the barn floor.

Neil Simon’s 1966 book is weak and dated. But Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ music and lyrics usually carry Sweet Charity with upbeat brassiness. “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “Rhythm of Life,” “Big Spender” — these are built for strong singing and major hoofing. Serrecchia, perhaps resigned to working with non-dancers, doesn’t try for complicated Fosse isolations or sinuous wiggles. These heifers move like a herd that can’t find the trail.

Costumers Derek Whitener and Victor Newman Brockwell add insult to penury by sending the cast out in one cheap-looking disaster after another. It’s OK for Sweet Charity’s tarts to look like tackier tarts, but for “The Rich Man’s Frug,” another Fosse dance sequence that flops at WaterTower, the partygoers are supposed to be society swells dressed to the nines. Whitener and Brockwell dress them to the fives in five-and-dime headpieces (A helmet covered in cotton balls? Toilet paper antlers?). On the gals, white polyester too-tight mini-dresses. On the guys, flared white poly trousers that hit above the ankles. The hookers wear white stockings throughout. Nothing says sexy like white hose, right, ladies?

Sweet Charity
continues through August 16 at WaterTower Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison. Tickets, $22-$40, at watertowertheatre.org and 972-450-6232.

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