At one point in the musical Sweet Charity, the main female characters sing “there’s gotta be something better than this.” While they are singing about their disappointing lives, this line also speaks directly to the extremely problematic messages this dated show perpetuates regarding sexual and gender politics. There’s gotta be something better in terms of producing musicals with great star and supporting vehicles for women that don’t also shame women who are sexual beings. Issues with the show as written aside, Reprise 2.0’s Sweet Charity is an impressive production led by Broadway stars Laura Bell Bundy and Barrett Foa and packed to the brim with charm and impressive choreography.
Charity (Bundy) is an endlessly optimistic young woman in 1966 New York City. She has a literal tattoo of a heart on her shoulder, and all she wants in life is to find someone who loves her. She has spent the past several years working as a dancer at a dance hall, getting paid by men for her time and attention. She has also had a miserable string of boyfriends, none of whom have turned out to be “the one.” In the first scene, a man she claims to be in love with literally steals her money and pushes her in a lake, and she still finds ways to make excuses for him.
It seems as if Charity’s luck is on an upswing when she gets stuck in an elevator with Oscar Lindquist (Foa), a neurotic and shy accountant. Charity uses her glass-half-full outlook to help him cope with his claustrophobia, and he is smitten. She decides, however, to lie about her occupation and pretend she works at a bank, worried a gentleman like Oscar would judge her if he knew what she actually does for a living. He eventually finds out and asks Charity to marry him anyway, only to break it off with her the day before their wedding, citing his obsession with her “lack of purity” and claiming he would never be able to stop thinking about all the other men she has been with.
It is, hopefully, pretty easy to see the problem with this storyline. Oscar insists he is “saving” Charity from a lifetime of simmering judgment and resentment by breaking up with her, and there is simply no way to spin this message into anything that does not equate to slut-shaming. Charity is already a character who sadly defines her self-worth based on her relationships with men, and she views being in love as the sole path to finding happiness in life. Oscar tells her, and the audience, that she is damaged goods to him because she has been with other men, indicating in the process that women who are not “pure” will never be worthy of love.
Directed and choreographed here by Kathleen Marshall, the final post-breakup moment, wherein Charity dusts herself off and moves on, accompanied by a projection stating that she lived “hopefully ever after,” is played as optimistic with a hint of heartbreak. If the show went a beat further and showed Charity realizing that perhaps the actual lesson is that maybe she doesn’t need a man to be happy and can learn to measure her own self-worth independent of others, it would help, but that is not what happens. Instead, the ending is simply devastating. A 2016 New York production starring Sutton Foster tweaked the climax, moving one of Charity’s solo numbers to the end of the show and going out on her confusion and heartbreak without attempting optimism. While that still does not fix the troubling overall messages within the musical, it rings more true in modern times, and shines a light on how terrible Oscar’s actions are without brushing them under the rug.
Problems with the show aside, the Reprise 2.0 take is strong and enjoyable, especially considering the limited rehearsal time productions in this series have to work with. Marshall’s choreography is first rate, and the talented ensemble garnered several mid-show rounds of raucous applause for their cheeky dance moves. Bundy is giving a phenomenal performance as Charity, who is not an easy character to portray, in terms of both the physical demands of the role and selling Charity’s often difficult to understand behavior. But Bundy has impeccable comedic timing and a magnetic quality that just makes you root for her, even when she’s being ridiculous. Foa is also excellent, even if the character he is playing turns out to be a despicable human being. Krystal Joy Brown and Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, who play Charity’s friends and fellow dancers Helene and Nickie, are also scene-stealers whenever they appear, boasting some of the strongest voices in the cast.
Classic musicals are constantly being revived—it is, after all, the entire mission statement of the Reprise series to celebrate musicals that are rarely seen today that have beautiful scores, and Sweet Charity does have a great score by Cy Coleman, with lyrics by Dorothy Fields. “Big Spender” is a classic for a reason. But, in the current political climate and especially in the wake of the Time’s Up movement, when do we draw the line and stop producing shows with outdated and problematic messages, regardless of other merits? I felt similarly about the current Broadway revival of Carousel, and it should not go unnoticed that, along with My Fair Lady, it lost the Tony to the revival of Once On This Island, a show that still has troubling gender dynamics within its story but not nearly to the same extent. Vehicles for actresses that do not perpetuate harmful, old-fashioned messages exist, and hopefully more theater companies will start to realize that we do not need to produce certain classic musicals at the expense of feminism, no matter how lovely the music may be.
Sweet Charity runs at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA through July 1st. The running time is two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $75 and can be purchased here. Rush tickets are also available for $30 at the box office one hour before curtain. Later this season, Reprise 2.0 will present Victor/Victoria and Grand Hotel.