Review “Sweet Charity”

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Where: Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through March 31
Tickets: $35-$75
Phone: 847-242-6000

Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe has been developing a fine track record for scaling back musicals for its intimate space, but “Sweet Charity” presents challenges that Director Michael Halberstam and his talented ensemble don’t quite overcome.

Unlike, say, last season’s hit, “A Little Night Music,” this show depends heavily on dance as well as storytelling and singing for its impact. Based on Federico Fellini’s 1957 film, “Nights of Cabiria” and written by Neil Simon (book), Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics), it was staged on Broadway in 1966 by Bob Fosse, who won a Tony Award for his choreography. The major numbers, such as “Big Spender,” “Rich Man’s Frug,” “The Rhythm of Life” and “I’m a Brass Band,” remain memorable enough for anyone who’s seen a full-blown production to raise questions about the merits of downsizing, especially given other logistical difficulties like how to show someone almost drowning.

That being said, Writers’ “Sweet Charity” has a lot going for it, starting with Tiffany Topol’s performance as Charity Hope Valentine, the perpetually optimistic, open-hearted dance hall hostess with a penchant for choosing the wrong men. If Topol doesn’t have the vocal chops to belt out the biggies, she is effective in the quieter songs and an excellent dancer. She’s a little too pretty and perky to fully capture the character’s poignancy, but the tone in general is on the lighter side.

One reason we don’t fully feel Charity’s vulnerability and desperate desire to be loved is the lack of chemistry between Topol and Jarrod Zimmerman’s Oscar Lindquist. His comic timing is impeccable, and he plays the trapped-in-the-elevator scene to the hilt, but his neuroses overpower the romance. There’s almost more of a connection between our heroine and Jeff Parker, who is surprisingly sensitive to her as Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal, instead of being completely self-absorbed and obsessed with girlfriend Ursula March (the statuesque Emily Ariel Rogers).

Of the others, James Earl Jones II has a ball as a quasi-military Daddy Brubeck in “The Rhythm of Life” sequence, a send-up of 1960s hippie religions that may seem dated today. Erika Mac and Karen Burthwright are workmanlike as Charity’s coworkers and friends, Helene and Nickie, while Katie Spelman is the new girl, Rosie, and Jones doubles as their boss, Herman. Adam Estes is the best of the dancers, and his hilarious opening bit for “The Rich Man’s Frug” almost makes up for the reduced number of dancers and shows off Jessica Redish’s Fosse-inspired choreography at its wittiest.

High praise also goes to Doug Peck for his musical direction and re-orchestrations beautifully performed by the skilled five-person jazz combo. Joshua Horvath’s sound design helps keep everything in balance. Scenic designer Collette Pollard and lighting designer John Culbert make decent use of the limited space, but David Hyman’s costumes are disappointing. The short circle-skirted pink dress Charity wears for most of the evening is more appropriate for an adolescent circa 1955 than a hostess at a seedy ’60s dance hall. And what’s with the flesh-toned seamed stockings over tights on some of her cohorts regardless of whether they’re portraying the Fandango ballroom girls or people on the street? Fishnets were in in the ’60s; seams were out.