For appreciators of talent, it does not get any better than Laura Bell Bundy! So I suggest you rush right on over to UCLA to see her star as Sweet Charity in the resurrected Reprise series (now dubbed “Reprise 2.0,”) while you have this rare opportunity. And you better hurry because it’s running only through next week-end. If I had the time, I would even go see it again myself.
Have I mentioned that I love, love, love Laura Bell Bundy??? The musical Legally Blonde should never be allowed to be produced without her, even when she’s eighty!!! I was so happy when she got cast on the late TV show, Hart of Dixie. And I was even happier the other night to witness her fabulous performance in Sweet Charity, which marks the return of the Reprise series of musicals at UCLA. So I repeat, do not miss her in this show!
I was sorry that I couldn’t make it to the opening night, (because, as Mr. X always says about me, I was once again overbooked,) which meant that I felt awful when I assumed that I had missed-out on meeting her at the afterparty. But on the night I did go, while I was chatting post-show with Sweet Charity’s amiable Musical Director, Gerald Sternbach, (because the pal I brought that night, Noelle, is friends with him,) lo and behold, the entire cast wound-up coming out to that area. And…I got to meet Laura Bell Bundy!
And let me tell you, she is as adorable a person as she is an actress!!! Perhaps even moreso! We wound-up talking for about fifteen minutes, and I swear, it was just like hanging-out with a regular friend of mine. First of all, she is the cutest little thing—I have no idea how that powerful voice comes out of that tiny body!!! Second of all, she really does look to be about twenty-one in person. Even with a lifetime of wearing stage and film make-up (because she’s been working since she was a kid,) she does not have even one wrinkle!!! How is that even possible?!
And unlike so many other stars I’ve met, (and actually know,) there was no rushing out of there, like a diva. She hung around, talking with the dancers and any fans who accosted her (as Noelle and I did!) And, I’m not exaggerating about this, Laura was as concerned that I had lost my phone case in the theatre that night as I was! And when darling Reprise General Manager, Matthew Herrmann, showed up with it while she and I were conversing, she squealed with delight right along with me! (Well, it is the cutest case ever!) [Note: A big “thank you” to Matthew for going above and beyond for me!]
So, Laura Bell Bundy is perfection as Charity. Her singing is divine, her dancing is excellent, her acting is charming, and her tears are genuine. This is a performer who always gives her all for her audience, no phoning it in, no matter what else is going on in her life. I was immediately impressed with her entrance on-stage, smiling genuinely all the way. She’s truly amazing. I think I’ve established all that. And more on her in a minute.
But what about the rest of this production of Sweet Charity? I’ve seen this show elsewhere only once, a lifetime ago, so, outside of the memorable tunes, I was viewing it through fresh eyes, (if not ears.) I had totally forgotten what it’s even about. So, basically–what a stupid story! I’m shocked that Neil Simon wrote it. It’s about a cute “dance hall hostess,” (which I think means just dancing with men, not being a prostitute, but, even after exhaustive research on the subject, I’m still not sure,) who’s in search of love. (Actually, who isn’t?!) But it’s all pretty goony. It was first on Broadway in 1966, so maybe the topic was different back then. But I still say, just go on the ride with them, and don’t try to make sense of it. There are a lot of laughs and you’ll love hearing all the famous songs, (Big Spender, I’m a Brass Band, and one of the most iconic songs of all time, that every one of us has thought at least once in our lives, If My Friends Could See Me Now,) performed live by a wonderful band and strong singers.
One thing that’s special about this Reprise 2.0 production is that the musicians are on stage the entire time, which I really appreciate. We audiences rarely get to see musicians work anymore, which is sad because…these are musicals, after all. The music made the whole experience exciting from the very first note of the overture! I have to admit that the first twenty minutes or so of the story are a bit boring, but definitely not Cy Coleman’s energizing music; every time the band struck even the first note of a song, electricity went through me. So, major props to Gerald Sternbach and all the outstanding musicians for making it come to life so vividly.
Surprisingly, the show did not seem as dated as I thought it would. After all, the search for love is timeless. As is having to accept a horrible job to support yourself. The only things that brought me back to this being an old school musical are a pay telephone, having to send a telegram to someone right in the same area, and Charity’s stupid curly wig. I don’t think that hairdo was “on fleek” even back then!
But, sadly, the ending is beyond disappointing. (I believe I even said, “FU” out loud at that point, as Mr. X did when I just told him about it!) Not exactly my finest moment, but I just can’t take it when life isn’t fair. If it were up to me, every play, musical, movie, TV show, and book would have a happy ending! But that’s just me.
Outside of that, the only aspect of this show that I was really not a fan of is the wardrobe. Charity’s red dress, (a very cheap version of the stunning Norma Kamali that I wore to my very first Golden Globes,) was beyond ill-fitting. That little tiny girl should be a costumer’s dream, but they did not help Laura out here. No one’s outfits were good, actually, except for maybe the Italian movie star’s girlfriend. The dance hall girls looked like they brought in their worst-looking outfits from home! Or the 99 cent store. (But perhaps that’s what the costumer was going for because the characters are poor girls, after all, so if that is the case, good job then. I just expect better visuals from a show of this caliber.)
As for the performances, they’re all good, in total support of Laura. (Or does she call herself Laura Bell, like Tinkerbell??? I should have asked her what is up with her name.) As I’ve mentioned, she is absolutely adorable! Noelle and I repeated that over and over during the show, as did every audience member around me. Sweet Charity would be nothing without her. I honestly do not know how she does it. Every line of hers is nuanced, and so many of them are on different levels. The absolute perfect way to deliver each line seems to be innate with her.
Robert Mammana, as the Italian movie star who hangs with Charity for an evening, is perfect for his role. His singing voice is so beautiful that I found myself wishing that the part was bigger, with more songs for him.
Noelle was especially happy to discover that Jon Jon Briones plays the dance hall boss because she had seen him last year on Broadway in Miss Saigon, a show he’s been in, on and off, for about a quarter of a century!!! I hadn’t known about any of that, but when he finally got to sing the very last number in this show, I loved his voice!
And Barrett Foa is very cute as the guy Charity meets at the end of the first act. I had seen Barrett only once before, but he was interviewing someone on stage then; I didn’t even know that he’s an actor! So he was a fun surprise to me here; I really enjoyed him.
Okay, I’ve put this part off because I hate saying it, but I believe that all critics have to give fully honest reviews. So here it is–the dance aspect of this very dance-y musical had me a bit stymied. The numbers all left me wanting so much more. I can’t exactly put my finger on the problem, but the movement just wasn’t crisp enough for me. It appeared that uber-lauded Broadway choreographer and director, Kathleen Marshall, chose not to go full Fosse here. (Bob Fosse is the one who conceived Sweet Charity, and the hallmark of the show has always been his unique choreographing style.) I’m sure one of the reasons is because, even though Reprise features each entire show, the run is brief, and the rehearsal period short, so it’s not a full-on production in some aspects, as it would be on Broadway. So maybe Ms. Marshall had to go a bit easier on the cast.
But, while watching it, I thought perhaps her lighter choreography was because this particular group, which includes some UCLA students/alumni, wouldn’t have been quite up to the task of doing that demanding style. Louis Williams, Jr. is the lone stand-out. So I assumed that this cast is more singers than dancers, because they all sing really well. But when I read the program afterwards, it appears that most of the troupe do have dance credits. Some are even mainly professional dancers! That didn’t really come through in this show, though, so I was left scratching my head about it all.
Still, I applaud the fact that Reprise gives students and recent graduates of UCLA (where I was a dance major, I’m proud to say) this major opportunity to be a part of its shows.
Speaking of which, the several lovely projections throughout, which really help set the scene for this pared-down version of the show, are by UCLA third year undergraduate student Ryan Marsh. So maybe their art department is better than their dance department nowadays! (I say that in a joking manner, but you never know.)
I’m so glad that Reprise has returned to UCLA’s Freud Theatre. Besides that this is always the happiest, most pleasant theatre experience, with the most legroom ever(!), the location itself holds a very special place in my heart for two reasons. One is that it’s the stage where I actually made my Los Angeles theatre debut! (Loooong story, for another day.) But, much more importantly, it’s where I first laid eyes on, set my cap for, and met…Mr. X! So, I have even more gratitude than usual every time I enter those premises.
And we can all look forward to two more Reprise 2.0 productions this year: another adorable girl, Carmen Cusack, in Victor/Victoria, followed by Grand Hotel, which features one of my favorite dance numbers of all time, which always brings down the house!
But meanwhile, there’s only another week’s worth of performances of Sweet Charity left, so you better go see it while you can! You do not want to ever miss the opportunity to see Laura Bell Bundy work in person!
Sweet Charity running through July 1, 2018
Freud Playhouse at UCLA 245 Charles E. Young Dr. E. Westwood Village (which is still my favorite place in LA!)