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THEATER REVIEW -- Sweet Charity opened at Southwest High School last weekend -- and it is the bomb. Southwest Dance Teacher Colleen Callahan brings the Bob Fosse choreographic style front-and-center, and the rest of the team brings it home. Yet again -- Southwest High School demonstrates its ongoing reputation as perhaps the best performing arts school in the state of Minnesota, if not the entire country. Add this to the unusual collaboration between Fosse and Neil Simon – and you have a perfect vehicle for the talented Southwest faculty and students.

"Beautiful Girls, Dancing Beautifully" - could almost be the story’s literal and sardonic subtitle.

Sweet Charity at Southwest High School

The SW chorus is solid, and the leading and supporting girls carry their solos and duets with strength and pizazz. Lead Giselle Durand nails it as Charity Hope Valentine, the naively charming dance-hall girl, and Merideth Jolstad and Sophia Meza have excellent timing as her bubbly and wise best-friends. The live pit orchestra struggles a bit in the overature, but they settle down once the production gets going. And the show is great to look at. The stage is post-modern – a virtually blank-white backdrop providing stark contrast to the colorful and hyper-realistic costumes. And the dancing – the dancing is amazing.

But for me – the surprise was the story… and how it relates to Feminism and Modern Times.

As director Margaret Berg tells it, the play is about imprisonment: being trapped in your roles and your culture. Especially when sex roles, mores and desires all work against you. As a girl, you try to be what every guy wants... and you end up being the opposite. Meanwhile, the rules of economics further stack the deck against you.

People may read Sweet Charity as anti- or pre-feminist, but my take is that Neil Simon was ahead of his time with this one. There’s a lot of playful talk about sex. (This was written in the sixties, about the sixties.) The girls are looking for love – perhaps in the wrong places. Meanwhile, they are paid to spend time with men… {Hey Big Spender… Spend a little time with me...} Working Girls will cuddle with you for ten dollars and a drink. Two drinks... and she’ll coo at your accomplishments and your slender physique… But the subtext throughout is that the men are selfish and cowardly, and they want everything both ways. The ending (spoiler alert!) is good one -- if not a happy one -- because Charity doesn’t end up marrying a jerk. His reason for dumping her is classic double-standard -- and as an audience, you know she’s better off. Though in the end, she is still trapped in a man’s world.

There is a key moment in the play – when the hero, Charity, successfully sneaks out of a bedroom closet to avoid being seen by a two-timed girlfriend. What’s striking is that the author has no interest in pitting those two women against each other, as one might expect -- because the men already offer plenty of difficulty. Posing and preening, they strut into the Fandango, wave their dollar bills, and pick out the girls of their choice. The girls try to be good sports about it, but what’s clear is that all the men in this story are babies. The Fandango club is fully populated with pragmatic and loving women, on the one hand, and on the other it’s full of inarticulate, bumbling, spineless children masquerading as men.

Director Margaret Berg sees the traps in this milieu – and makes the most of them. Characters are trapped in an elevator, trapped on a swing, trapped in an environment where men flip a twenty and get Something… but nobody really gets what they want. Yet for some reason – this story isn’t sad, so much as it’s… Charitable. Simon treats the women pretty well, while he shows us that Our Country does not. Which is why this play is worth seeing now. In the fifty years since this musical was written, we seem to have come full circle. There has been a "power grab" -- and it’s now okay to say blatantly racist and sexist things again. No need to hide the ugliness...

Right? Wrong. And this Sweet Charity captures that, while still maintaining hope.

See it, this Thursday through Sunday at Southwest High School.

Support the arts. Support the kids. Support what’s good.

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