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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Where Am I Going? To See Writers' Theatre's Sweet Charity

You don't have to twist my arm to make me go see a production of Sweet Charity, the 1966 musical with a fabulous score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields and an amusing book by Neil Simon. If given the choice of spending the evening with Charity Hope Valentine or The Book of Mormon, I would choose the sweet dance hall "hostess" every time. That's how much I love the show.

And what's not to love? The music is marvelous - including such memorable songs as "Big Spender", "If My Friends Could See Me Now", "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This", "The Rhythm of Life", "Baby, Dream Your Dream", "Where Am I Going?" and "I'm a Brass Band". And the story about a sweet girl looking for love and a brand new life is one that most people can probably identify with. There are lots of laughs and a few poignant moments, and I find the show to be thoroughly irresistible - up until the final scene (which I will get to later).

So when I heard that Michael Halberstam, the Artistic Director of Writers' Theatre, was directing a production this winter, my heart - of course - jumped for joy with great anticipation. And I am happy (and relieved) to tell you that I was not disappointed. The cast is wonderful, including Karen Burthwright and Ericka Mac as Nickie and Helene, Charity's friends who also work at the Fandango Ballroom (and Ms. Mac's comedic delivery often reminded me of The Golden Girls' Sophia, which is meant as a compliment); James Earl Jones II as Charity's boss Herman and Daddy Brubeck (his rendition of "Rhythm of Life" is outstanding); the handsome Jeff Parker as Italian movie star Vittoria Vidal; and the statuesque Emily Ariel Rogers as Vittoria's girlfriend Ursula. But for Sweet Charity to work, you do need a good actress in the title role - and, fortunately, this production has the delightful Tiffany Topol, who appealingly captures Charity's hopeful optimism and kooky charm. Although her singing voice isn't the strongest, she more than makes up for this with her impressive acting performance.

And then there is the important character of Oscar, a neurotic young man whom Charity falls in love with. He is portrayed by Jarrod Zimmerman, who nearly steals the show away from our beloved heroine. This talented actor makes it quite easy for us to understand why Miss Valentine would become smitten - his Oscar is "adorkable", which isn't a word that I use very often (if ever) but in this case it fits perfectly. Zimmerman's hilarious elevator meltdown at the end of Act I is definitely worth driving to the suburbs for.

I also must mention Jessica Redish's inventive choreography - especially during the sublime "Rich Man's Frug" number, which I could easily watch over and over again. Mr. Halberstam and his creative team have put together an entertaining and intimate Sweet Charity that I highly recommend . . . but this brings me back to the final scene of the musical, which I'm going to briefly discuss. So if you don't want to know how the show ends, skip the next paragraph.

I don't mind that Oscar dumps Charity because he cannot deal with all of the other men in her sordid past. Yes, it's a depressing downer because we are rooting for the couple, but "happily ever after" doesn't always happen. I just have a problem with the jarring abruptness of this feel-bad ending, which leaves both the audience and poor Charity in a very dark place. Why didn't Coleman and Fields write one more song to give their leading lady a "pick yourself up, start all over again" moment? I don't think that's too much to ask for, but for whatever reason, it didn't happen.

But despite the last scene, I still love Sweet Charity. And I thank Writers' Theatre for allowing me - with its enjoyable production - to smile, laugh and frug my way into a satisfying state of musical theater bliss.

Sweet Charity runs through March 31 at Writers' Theatre (325 Tudor Court) in Glencoe, Illinois. Tickets can be purchased in person at the box office (376 Park Avenue in Glencoe), by phone at (847) 242-6000 or online at

The above photo is by Michael Brosilow, and below you can watch a video of Sweet Charity in rehearsal.

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