Sweet Success

Normally I cower under furniture when a Neil Simon play takes any local stage, but I'd heard that Shawna Quain was doing a bang-up job in the title role of Theater Works' Sweet Charity, so I tucked away my fear of Simon and headed to Sun City. My source was right: Quain's performance is delightful -- the bright spot in an otherwise pedestrian production.

Quain is charming as the dance hall hostess (that's Neil Simon for "hooker") with a heart of gold who's just been dumped by another guy. She takes up with a D-list movie star and eventually falls for a nerdy accountant who thinks she works in a bank; along the way, she sings a lot of songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, several of which ("Big Spender," "If My Friends Could See Me Now") have become standards. Adapted from Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria, Sweet Charity is about a lot of brain-dead pushovers who, because this is Neil Simon, are besieged by dipshit sitcom circumstances: our heroine hiding in a closet while her new beau romances his girl; a couple meeting cute on a stuck elevator; a movie idol in a smoking jacket crooning in a dumb accent.

Our Charity's a pushover, but she's a musical-theater pushover, so she's bright as a new penny and has -- thanks to Quain -- perfect pitch and stage presence to spare. Her delivery is sharp and lively, and her hat-and-cane bit (kudos to choreographer Laurie Case, who elsewhere creates less attractive routines) in "If My Friends Could See Me Now" is first-rate, and performed as if she were backed by something other than the flatulent tooting of Christie McKibben's 12-piece orchestra. Accompanied by these mostly tone-deaf musicians and surrounded by a stageful of gimpy dancers (many of them sporting striking Lily Pulitzer knockoffs courtesy of costumer Margret Emerson), Quain shines like a beacon from Paul Bridgeman's delightful Mondrian-inspired set.

Elsewhere, there are pleasant performances from Dion Johnson, who sells a mean "Too Many Tomorrows," and Shelley Phetteplace and Brandi Bigley as Charity's tunesome hooker pals. Edgar Torrens is tucked into the chorus, but deserves a spot right out front; this super-talented singer/dancer out-hoofs everyone else onstage.

But a couple of cool performances and a nice set do not a blockbuster make. Although Quain is onstage most of the night, even her luminous performance can't prop up the lifeless kick line accompanying "Big Spender" or the occasionally lazy tricks turned by otherwise capable director Scott Campbell. At one point, a stagehand appears to wheel a platform, loaded with actors, onto the stage, and for some reason, the scrims are backlit in Act Two -- or they were, at least, at the matinee I attended -- providing an unobstructed view of a lot of backstage shenanigans -- some of them more entertaining than what was happening on stage.

Theater Works is taking some chances including a ballot in every playbill, asking audience members to vote on the performance of each cast member. All my votes go to Shawna Quain, who steals an altogether average show.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela