Young female characters in 1960s pop culture never took the pill — they almost never even mentioned it — but they became distinctly more independent, urban, erotic and energetic than their predecessors, who never had access to it. No longer forced merely to knit, cook and hunt for husbands, they found the time to pursue a broad range of fiercely individualistic, often outrageous “identities.”
“That girl” wasn’t just diamonds, daisies and snowflakes; she was also gingham, bluebirds and Broadway. Her name got kookier — Holly Golightly, Pookie Adams, Gidget — as did her pursuits. And no matter how bad things got as these ‘60s girls faced a harsh world in the big city, even if they were forced into prostitution (or, as often seemed to be the case in the ‘60s, crypto-prostitution), they always retained a kicky, girlish innocence. They never became thick-skinned or cynical, because they had a heart of gold and great things were always just around the corner.
A prime example of the archetype is Charity Hope Valentine, the lead character in the 1968 Broadway musical “Sweet Charity,” on stage at the Aurora Theatre through September 2. Playwright Neil Simon based the script on the Federico Fellini film “Nights of Cabiria,” and in making the journey from Italy to the Broadway stage, the main character became less an aging Roman whore and more a wide-eyed innocent in the Gidget mold. Simon’s Charity works in a sleazy dance hall as a “dime-a-dance” girl, and, though she desperately looks for love in the eyes of every man who comes through the door, she’s decidedly not a prostitute.
Gwen Verdon played the role on Broadway, and Shirley Maclaine, who has specialized in this type of role, memorably played it in the film. It’s a zeitgeist thing, and it’s a challenge to recapture the character’s peculiar combination of eroticism, hopefulness and innocence. It’s perhaps even harder to repackage it and sell it to a present-day audience.
Though Rebecca Simon as Charity is charming and talented, she’s miscast here. There’s something too tough, sexy, autonomous and contemporary about her. She girlishly laughs and squeals in all the right places, but seldom seems genuinely delighted. The whole show hangs on the audience’s falling in love with this rather peculiar idea of a woman, and if we don’t, there’s not much left to pull us in.
Fortunately, there’s a great sense of polish in the Aurora production. A 12-piece band sits on a large, impressive set that’s all New York: brick, neon, billboards and fire escapes. Balancing the music of the band with the voices proves to be a challenge, though. The singers are miked, and the voices, especially the female ones, can end up sounding too bright and aggressive, but without enough personality or richness.
The show uses a small ensemble of about seven actors, and though this usually works well, with characters comically doubling up or shuffling about in crowd scenes, the Broadway production obviously attempted to capture the bustling business and comic toughness of New York, and that doesn’t come across with so few people. Big numbers such as “Hey, Big Spender” and “Rich Man’s Frug” are well done but look sparse. The strongest song ends up being the simple duet “Baby Dream Your Dream,” in which Charity’s more cynical companions realize that her silly optimism, which they usually mock, is something to be admired and envied.
The original show’s creators inserted some gestures toward the “hip” culture of the time, most of them — beat jazz, Black Power, rock music, hippies and faddish spirituality — centering on the song “The Rhythm of Life.” Though the song is energetic and successfully placed, one hears a creakiness in it. Unlike the musicals of previous decades, “Sweet Charity” doesn’t seem to be a confident purveyor of pop culture; here, Broadway seems to be doing a couple of quick, clumsy steps to try to keep up.
This show is a period piece that will charm hard-core Broadway musical lovers, but it never manages to fully evoke the spirit of the times. Some will leave the theater wondering whether it’s even a zeitgeist they would ever want to see.