Chicago Theater Review: SWEET CHARITY (Writers’ Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 2, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

SAD TRIUMPH OF HOPE OVER EXPERIENCE

It’s like kicking a puppy dog to dislike Charity Hope Valentine. Charity is the cloyingly-named heroine of the 1966 musical by Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Neil Simon, a show once made famous by Gwen Verdon’s slinkiness and Bob Fosse’s choreography. Writers’ Theatre approaches this strange amalgam of high hopes and low blows with a trust almost as potent as the title character’s all-consuming naïveté. Whether the show rewards this faith, hope and charity remains an open question.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of SWEET CHARITY at Writers' Theatre ChicagoA ditzy-dumb, ever-hopeful, dance-hall hostess at the Fandango Ballroom – where every floozy longs for a “Big Spender” – Charity lurches from one emotional disappointment to another: Her first let down – one she immediately falls for – is a feckless boyfriend who scrams at the suggestion of marriage after pushing her into a lake and taking her purse; next is Vittorio, an Italian matinee idol who uses her to make his mistress jealous; and the last is Oscar, a nerdy neurotic who gets scared off by the thought of all the other men in her life.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of SWEET CHARITY at Writers' Theatre ChicagoThe dippy plot takes Charity from Vittorio’s penthouse (“If My Friends Could See Me Now”) to a hippie church (“Rhythm of Life”) to a stuck elevator (“I’m the Bravest Individual”) to a paralyzed parachute ride at Coney Island. The sturdy, funky score mirrors her highs (“I’m A Brass Band”) and uncharacteristic lows (“Where Am I Going?”).

Above all, this pop-up musical celebrates Charity’s spunky spirit despite so much serial disappointment. But, heck, it takes a ton of credulity to believe in her trusting, unflappable sweetness amid all these bad breaks. When Charity sings with her dance-hall friends, “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” we expect the song to answer itself. But Simon’s book (taken from Fellini’s The Nights of Cabiria) indulges no such happy ending. For all Coleman’s jaunty music the outcome is more Sondheim-esque than traditional musical comedy.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of SWEET CHARITY at Writers' Theatre ChicagoMichael Halberstam’s indomitable staging is a spirited showcase for high-kicking Tiffany Topol in the lovable title role. Fresh-faced but small-voiced, Topol has to do a lot of dumbing-down to reach that role but she’s also found enough open-hearted vulnerability to atone for the low I.Q. Anyway, to show the slightest cynicism or bitterness would destroy our faith in Charity; Topol hurls herself into her songs and dances with infectious, wide-eyed delight. If anyone can make a skeptical 2013 audience care about a born victim who never learns from the mistakes she makes (basically meeting men), Topol is that heartbreaker. If anything rivals Topol’s feet, it’s Jessica Redish’s time-capsule choreography, a reminder of how Fosse could turn funky ’60s dance steps into a brilliant new body language.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of SWEET CHARITY at Writers' Theatre ChicagoBy playing the reality behind the lousy men who go in – and quickly out – of Charity’s life,  Jarrod Zimmerman (Oscar) and Jeff Parker (Vittorio) sacrifice some of the satire Neil Simon put into the parts, but they also show us why Charity keeps getting taken in.

As Charity’s tart companions, Ericka Mac, Karen Burthwright, and Katie Spelman provide terrific back-up and score on their own when they cut loose in the poignant “Baby, Dream Your Dream.” James Earl Jones II has a lot of contagious fun as Daddy Brubeck, the cool cat who runs the tax-dodging, drug-peddling pseudo-church.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Sweet Charity
Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe
scheduled to end on March 31 EXTENDED to April 14, 2013
for tickets, call 847-242-6000 or visit http://www.writerstheatre.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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