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"Sweet Charity" a Perfect Valentine of a Musical

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by Hedy Weiss
Theater Critic/hweiss@suntimes.com

When: Through March 31
Where: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe
Tickets: $35-$75
Info: (847) 242-6000; www.writerstheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with one intermission

"Without love, life has no purpose."

For Charity Hope Valentine, the little dance hall hostess with the wide open heart who works at New York's Fandango Ballroom -- and has a serious habit of making all the wrong choices when it comes to men -- those are words to live by. Forget that they result in repeated debt, disappointment and heartbreak.

And you've really got to love this girl -- especially as she is being played with starry charm by Tiffany Topol, the beguiling actress and sensational dancer at the center of Writers' Theatre's delicious candy box of a revival of "Sweet Charity."

This 1966 Broadway hit by Cy Coleman (music), Dorothy Fields (lyrics) and Neil Simon (book), was originally directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse (for his wife, Gwen Verdon). It is now being brought back to life courtesy of director Michael Halberstam and choreographer Jessica Redish, who demonstrate that the intimacy of Writers' Glencoe theater is part of its great strength.

I've seen several revivals of this musical that have felt silly and dated -- stuck in a strange time warp of the 1950s and '60s. What Halberstam, Redish, Topol and the deft ensemble behind her manage to do is to create a sort of fairy tale world that just goes straight to your heart without stopping at any reality signposts. And for the first time at Writers', dance trumps words as the most expressive of all languages.

Redish pays full homage to Fosse (her take on "Rich Man's Frug" is alone worth the price of admission). But she also adds a lyricism and individuality to the choreography that fully captures Charity's vulnerability and humanity. And Topol's face, and her way of turning a song into the most conversational speech, do the rest in this marathon role that fully showcases her many talents and makes you root for her every step of the way.

Charity's adventures begin when her married rotter of a boyfriend pushes her into the water and she almost drowns. It then moves on to her adventures with Vittorio Vidal (Jeff Parker), an Italian film star in the Marcello Mastroianni mode who still pines for his glam diva, Ursula (leggy Emily Ariel Rogers). Finally, worst of all, there is Oscar Lindquist (Jarrod Zimmerman. just right as the needy young nerd). Charity saves him from a panic attack when they get stuck in an elevator on the way to "uplifting" classes at the 92nd Street Y, but ultimately he leaves her at the altar. As Charity learns yet again, even true love is elusive.

Along the way we meet the other burnt-out dance hall girls, all far more cynical than Charity, played by Karen Burthwright (who has the show's best quip: "Who dances? We defend ourselves to music"); Ericka Mac (the long timer); Rogers (the jaded showgirl type), and Katie Spelman, the naive newcomer. Adam Estes, Travis Porchia and Liam Quealy are the fast-moving men with all the moves(and gropes), with James Earl Jones injecting some wonderfully zany psychedelic antics into in his portrayal of the minister of The Rhythm of Life Church, whose congregation is full of losers and nutcases.

Collette Pollard's set perches the formidable band on a dance hall-like balcony, with Tom Vendafreddo leading BJ Cord (a terrific horn player), Bill Harrison, Nick Moran and Bob Rummage.

Looking for a Valentine's Day date? "Sweet Charity" might just be your girl.

One sour note: The show's program fails to list the individual musical numbers. Sadly, this has become a routine practice these days, but one that should be rectified.

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This page contains a single entry by Hedy Weiss published on January 30, 2013 5:38 PM.

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