Lauren Bristow

Sweet Charity at the Ritz Theatre Company

Valentine’s Day comes early this year compliments of the Ritz Theatre Company. The production team replaced all the theatre’s Holiday decorations with hearts, red streamers and a musical about the joys and sorrows of looking for love. The fickle finger of fate led your correspondent to attend Sweet Charity on Saturday, January 11th.

Charity Hope Valentine (played by Lauren Bristow) endeavored upon a quest for love. A series of unfortunate choices caused some navigational problems along her voyage. One boyfriend threw her into a lake. Another used her as his personal ATM machine. The third time seemed more promising.

An encounter with Oscar Lindquist (played by Matthew Weil) led to a blossoming romance. Unfortunately, quirks riddled Mr. Lundquist’s personality. His pathological obsession with purity functioned as the most glaring. Charity feared her job as a ‘dancehall hostess’ would cause him to terminate their relationship. It caused Lundquist to wonder if his taste in women could be as flawed as Charity’s taste in men.

That’s pretty heavy material for a book written by Neil Simon based on a concept by Bob Fosse. While witty at first, the story contained the potential of becoming a 1960s answer to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Fortunately for theatre fans, directors Bruce A. Curless and Roberta Curless kept the performance lighthearted and entertaining.

Sweet Charity featured a host of impressive dance routines choreographed by Co-Director Roberta Curless. Most of them highlighted Charity. Lauren Bristow proved herself the perfect performer to play the part. Ms. Bristow opened the show with a wonderful solo dance that contained no vocal accompaniment. She deftly incorporated a hat and a cane into the “If My Friends Could See Me Now” number while singing Dorothy Fields’ lyrics. (Cy Coleman wrote the music.) Later in the show, Ms. Bristow executed a series of quick twirls while performing “Where Am I Going.”

The other cast members performed a memorable sequence themselves. The instrumental “Rich Man’s Shrug” included an eclectic mix of music. It allowed the choreographer and ensemble to explore their creativity. During the number’s first part, this reviewer thought: if Mike Myers wrote Austin Powers as a musical, this song would be in it. The piece’s second section hearkened back to the sound of the Roaring Twenties. The routines Ms. Curless crafted well suited both these unique musical styles.

Charity may have struggled to find love, but audiences will find it easy to love Lauren Bristow as Charity. Ms. Bristow turned in a superlative performance. Because of the strength of her solo dance routines, her dancing ability impressed the most. She also showcased stellar vocals all evening on songs such as “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, “Ciao Baby” and “Where Am I Going” as well as on the ensemble tracks.

Through her acting ability, Ms. Bristow captured the character’s inner hopefulness. In spite of Charity’s romantic turmoil, Ms. Bristow’s smile expressed her indomitable optimism. Her curious yet amused facial expressions during the Rhythm of Life church scene, showed how the character could find amusement in even the most awkward situations. In addition, Ms. Bristow delivered her many comic lines with both seriousness and the proper timing.

Ms. Bristow also captured the serious side of the character’s personality. For a story written in 1966, Charity evolved into a model of female empowerment. Ms. Bristow portrayed this change with believability; in large due to her skillful display of Charity’s inner optimism.

After the completion of his latest directorial project, Willy Wonka, Matt Weil returned to the stage for another show about sweetness. Mr. Weil pulled his own version of a ‘Nicholas French at the Ritz’ performance.* Mr. Weil played all three of Charity’s boyfriends. He played the first two as humorous characters. He wore a pompadour wig and dark sunglasses for Charlie. Mr. Weil adopted a silly voice while wearing a shaggy wig for the second beau.

Well known for his directing prowess, Mr. Weil showed himself just as adept a performer while on stage. In the role of Oscar Lundquist, Mr. Weil sang an impassioned rendition of “Sweet Charity.” He displayed a comical, yet believable case of nerves when trapped on the elevator with Ms. Bristow. His vocals on “I’m the Bravest Individual” expressed his anxiety.

Ms. Bristow and Mr. Weil complimented one another very well. When Ms. Bristow confessed Charity’s real profession, Mr. Weil exhibited empathy and understanding. Later, Mr. Weil did an excellent enactment of Oscar’s inner conflict. He modulated his character’s attitude making the confrontation scene much more moving. Ms. Bristow’s response gave the resolution added impact.

Vocal Director Tim Brown conducted wonderful arrangements. “Big Spender” featured performers Lauren Bristow, Lindsey Krier, Kelly Govak, Kristin Hegel and Melanie Ervin singing together. Mr. Brown split the vocal sections between the performers. The organization allowed the melody to create a unique audio effect.

Other memorable tunes populated the set list. Ms. Krier and Ms. Govak turned in a strong performance of “Baby Dream Your Dream.” Craig Bazan led a terrific rendition of “I Love to Cry at Weddings.” Terrance T. Hart delivered an operatic sounding “Too Many Tomorrows.”

Sweet Charity’s ambiance gave the performance an excellent 60s vibe. The set (designed by William Bryant) contained a mix of bright and semi-dark colors. The choices reminded this reviewer of the cover of Cream’s Disraeli Gears album.

Costume Designer Tina Greene-Heinze used the same patterns in her work. She placed Ms. Govak in a bright yellow dress. The sequins on Ms. Krier’s blue dress sparkled and enhance the brilliance. The black dress Ms. Bristow wore and the tuxedo on Terrance T. Hart offset the bright colors. The psychedelic patterns on the Rhythm of Life Church members’ clothes fit the time period.

Jim Reed’s wig designs kept the audience rooted in the period as well. They comprised currant buns, long shaggy hair and big Afros. With all the high impact dancing, it surprised this reviewer than none of the performers lost their wigs during the show.

Other members of the Production Team included: Sound Designer Matthew Gallagher, Lighting Designer Chris Miller, Technical Director Nathan Kunst, Stage Manager Brian Gensel, Properties, Meg Iafolla, Assistant Stage Managers Melissa Harnois and Alyssa Sendler, Sound Board Operators Anastasia Swan and Natasha Swann and Spot Operators Gabe Slimm and Jessi Meisel.

The show your correspondent witnessed included a moment for the blooper reel. Since there is no video recording of live theatre, fans will have to be content to read about it. When Matt Weil’s character entered the dancehall, performer Craig Bazan (as the proprietor Herman) called him by his real name, Matt.

Charity observed, “Without love, life has no purpose.” Without shows as fun as Sweet Charity, musical theatre has no purpose. Make a date to see it at the Ritz no later than February 2nd. After that, this run will seem as ephemeral as one of Charity’s relationships.

 

*In the Ritz Theatre’s January 2019 production of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, performer Nicholas French played all eight members of the D’Yasquith family.

Big Fish at the Ritz Theatre Company

“Be the hero of your story,” Edward Bloom (played by Chris Monaco) told his son Young Will (Nicky Intrieri). Edward had quite a tale to tell. It included a witch (Rachel Klien), a mermaid (Lauren Bristow) and a giant (Jared Paxson) along with some memorable human characters; one of whom suffered from lycanthropy (Anthony Joseph Magnotta). Big Fish followed this fabulous fabulist of a father as his son Will (Frankie Rowles) endeavored to discover the man behind the myths. Director Matt Reher along with the cast and crew at the Ritz Theatre took the audience along this magical journey. I attended the May 8th performance.

At the beginning, playwright John August and songwriter Andrew Lippa gave the audience a sense of the evening they could expect. The “Be the Hero” track included a section where Edward Bloom described his unconventional approach to fishing. Calling it the “Alabama Stomp,” Mr. Monaco led the ensemble through a percussive dance routine. Fish leapt out of the water in response to it.

It’s quite a challenge to dance and sing at the same time. Big Fish added a tricky third element by requiring performers to catch large fish thrown from off stage. The cast executed this task without flaw.

The Ritz provided extraordinary atmospherics for this show. In the prelude to the “I Know What You Want” number, Technical Director Connor Profitt transformed the theatre into an eerie swamp. As Edward and his friends searched for the witch, the cricket sounds, dim lighting and smoke made it easy for me to suspend my disbelief.

Lauren Bristow’s solo dancing contained excellent choreography by Devon Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair also coordinated more elaborate routines that included the cast and ensemble; the best comprised the witch’s “I Know What You Want”, “Little Lamb from Alabama” and “Closer to Her.”

Aside from the fantastical elements, Big Fish contained a very “human” story. Edward (Chris Monaco) liked to relate the events of his life through fictitious tales. He described his and his wife Sandra’s (Megan Ruggles) courtship in hyper-romantic terms; as shown through the “Closer to Her” and “Daffodils” numbers. He entertained his son Young Will (Nicky Intrieri) with stories containing a message. An encounter with a witch (Rachel Klein) taught him not to fear death. A mermaid (Lauren Bristow) showed him that love changes a person.

Young Will’s frustration with his father’s tale telling became hostile when he reached adulthood. His wife Josephine (Jamie Talamo) encouraged him to seek the lessons hidden in Edward’s stories. Upon receiving news of his father’s illness, Will (Frankie Rowles) sought to traverse the metaphorical river between them. When Will discovered that his father co-signed a mortgage for his high school sweetheart’s (Jenny Hill played by Colleen Murphy) home, he confronted his father.

Chris Monaco made his Ritz Mainstage debut in the lead role. He captured the upbeat nature of Edward’s personality along with his frustration with Will’s focus on “truth.” Mr. Monaco showed the depth of the character’s affection for Sandra in his scenes with Mrs. Ruggles. And most important: the man could tell a story.

Frankie Rowles played an excellent antagonist to Mr. Monaco. He concretized Will’s own annoyance with his father and his “tall tales.” Mr. Rowles conveyed that sentiment in song through a powerful rendition of “Stranger.” Without giving away spoilers, I will write that the performer enacted his character’s change in a believable fashion.

Big Fish contained beautiful music. Mr. Monaco performed a pining rendition of “Time Stops.” Megan Ruggles and members of the ensemble performed the quick dance moves from “Little Lamb from Alabama” in slow motion. Ms. Ruggles bashful vocals complimented the longing in Mr. Monaco’s.

Act One ended with “Daffodils.” The title referred to Sandra’s favorite flower. Mr. Monaco’s character proceeded to remove one-at-a-time from a bag while serenading Ms. Ruggles. The two performers captured the essence of the following exchange in song.

Sandra: You don’t even know me.

Will: I have the rest of my life to find out.  

Ms. Ruggles delivered a heart rending version of “I Don’t Need a Roof.” To add to the song’s mood, she cradled Mr. Monaco in her lap as she sang. Her performance made this scene the most touching moment of the show. With so many touching moments in Big Fish, this is a noteworthy achievement.

Moira Miller added superb costuming to this production. It enhanced the visual spectacle. From the country folk of Ashton, Alabama to the mystical figures the attire reflected each character’s personality.

Will’s clothing showed the iconoclastic nature of the man underneath it. He wore a jacket and tie to his son’s wedding reception along with a pair of khakis. His son dressed in a traditional suit. The attire displayed the variance in the two characters’ personalities.

The costumes the witch, the mermaid and the giant wore showed remarkable creativity. The witch’s included a pattern that resembled the surface of a cobra’s skin. The gold texture on the ringmaster (Amos Calloway played by Anthony Joseph Magnotta) costume glittered under the lights.

Ritz Big Fish 05

Chris Monaco and Ensemble

In homage to Edward’s fondness for hyperbole, I write that Big Fish contained enough props to fit in a small warehouse. While a bit of an exaggeration, it’s absolute fact that Melissa Harnois did an excellent work managing all these items. As the set (designed by William Bryant) included Edward’s attic, it contained a lot of miscellany.

Malik Muhammad, AJ Love, Chantel Cumberbatch and Meredith Meghan completed the ensemble.

Hillary Kurtz executed Chris Miller’s lighting design without flaw. Matthew Gallagher managed the sound design. Brian Bacon served as Musical Director.

With a great message, fantastical characters and superb musical numbers, Big Fish made for one entertaining evening of theatre going. Director Matt Reher wrote: Truth is not the same as fact. Regarding my assessment of Big Fish, they are.

Big Fish runs through May 19th at the Ritz Theatre Company.