This recipe is both religiously followed and bravely ignored in Late Night Theatre's Sweet (underground) Charity, the company's first production not created in utero. Not content to reexamine kitsch like The Birds or James Bond, Ron Megee and Missy Koonce have enlisted director Jeff Church to bring alive the work of authors other than themselves. Also unprecedented in Late Night's history is having Megee and Koonce share the stage. The male and female troupes are blended in a frothy concoction of estrogen and testosterone that the FDA couldn't categorize, much less approve.
The 1966 musical Sweet Charity combined Dorothy Fields' lyrics, Cy Coleman's music, Neil Simon's book and Bob Fosse's staging and choreography in what became a tour de force for the ex-Mrs. Fosse, Gwen Verdon. When the film finally hit the screen, movie musicals were on life support with one vital sign remaining -- the ignoble trend of replacing the Broadway star with someone else for the movie. Just as Gypsy did it to Ethel Merman and South Pacific to Mary Martin, the film Sweet Charity put the screws to Verdon and cast Shirley MacLaine. If the film is remembered at all, it's for pounding the last nail into the genre's coffin.
Late Night's modus operandi could be characterized with the phrase "but forget all that." If Sweet Charity were to be mounted at all, it had to be infused with Megee's biting wit, Koonce's atomic energy and Church's political banners. The chorus line performance of "Big Spender" that is perhaps the show's trademark is here populated by women, men and dual-spirited beings in between. The Fandango Room -- a sexual procurement palace masquerading as a dance hall -- has been irretrievably integrated.
Megee plays Charity Hope Valentine looking like Jon Voight's hustler, Buck, in Midnight Cowboy, while Koonce plays his colleague, Nickie, in homage to a late-'60s Goldie Hawn. (There is, in fact, a heavy Laugh-In sensibility throughout, down to the freeze-frame dance performed in The Pompeii Club.) The Fandango staff is rounded out by Helene (Shaun Roberts), Carmen (DeDe Deville), Rosie (Victoria Barbee), Cecil (Ray Ettinger) and Frenchy (Ron Arens). Some are boys and some are girls, but never mind the product 'cause it's all in the packaging. Serving as the chattel rustler is Phil blue owl Hooser, whose Herman, the Fandango proprietor, is one of six roles he smashingly embodies.
Sturdily supporting the featured Fandango-go dancers from head to toe are Georgianna Londre, whose costume design boggles; Andy Chambers, whose wig and makeup design bedazzles; and the uncredited set that mixes bordello bawdiness with cocktail lounge hipness. And in his Late Night debut, Charles Fugate is terrific playing Charity's conquests, the bisexual baseball star Gregorio Brettorio and the uptight accountant Oscar Lindquist. The key to his performance is his unwavering belief that he's in Sweet Charity as it was originally conceived; his square-jawed masculinity never flinches a bit now that his characters are switch-hitters. He's the show's central nervous system, around which all these neon synapses are firing.
Ah, but does it work? Is Late Night biting off more than it can chew or is the Fandango a perfect fit? A little of both. If Late Night fans thought the company could never have too much going on at once, witness the unfortunate production number "Rhythm of Life," a visit to a revival meeting that sets up Charity and Oscar's first date. Koonce plays the charismatic preacher Big Daddy (Sammy Davis Jr. in the movie), and the cast surrounds the character with a fervor not known outside of big Broadway production numbers and revival meetings. But no one's watching it because through the whole number there's a slide show running stage left that pokes fun at such cult leaders as Jim Jones and Martha Stewart.
Megee is blessed with a preponderance of gifts, but a lyrical singing voice isn't high on the list. With "If My Friends Could See Me Now," there's a lot of stage business and busyness that tries its damnedest to forgive this fact, yet he miraculously erases the deficit in a sweet duet with Koonce, "Where Am I Going?" The bittersweet finale, "I'm a Brass Band," hilariously restores that Late Night philosophy of "too much not soon enough." At one point, Meshel Cook, who earlier plays a couple of smaller roles, stakes a claim front and center only to have Megee dress her down with, "This is my dream sequence, bitch!"
Throughout the show, Megee and Hooser ad lib (or have cleverly pretended to ad lib) a few choice tidbits that one hopes remain, as when Charity declares his weight and Hooser mockingly repeats it from offstage. And audiences primed for the vulgar sight gag will find Charity's goodbye party a huge relief. The show, though touching at the end, has been stripped of any excess fluff. The deconstruction is epitomized in a scene set in the Fandango dressing room where the workers are not on display but instead caught lounging in their briefs and panties. Around Frenchy's upper arm is a tightly knotted strip of rubber, and if the company didn't feel the need to actually depict the next step, it assuredly implies that the sweet has gone out of the charity.