If you already have a ticket in hand for “Sweet Charity,” now at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe, give yourself a pat on the back. If you don’t have a ticket, get one now, because this letter-perfect show is sure to sell out. Director Michael Halberstam and musical director Doug Peck do everything right, and it would be hard to imagine a better cast, especially Tiffany Topol in a star turn as Charity Hope Valentine, the down-on-her-luck New York City dance hall hostess who keeps her chin up in the face of dispiriting odds.
The talented folks at Writers’ Theatre probably can’t wait to spread their wings in a larger theater to be designed by starchitect Jeanne Gang, but much of the success of “Sweet Charity” stems from the clever ways Halberstam and crew channel the energies of a big show into the intimate Tudor Court space. Lighting and sound cues (lighting by John Culbert, sound by Joshua Horvath) substitute for fussy sets and props in a less-is-more sleight of hand that demonstrates how wildly inflated Broadway budgets are. When Charity is trapped in an elevator with a panicked Oscar Lindquist (the delightful Jarrod Zimmerman), the elevator is merely a rectangle of light, but as Zimmerman frantically climbs its nonexistent walls, the audience gets the picture and the focus stays on the superb players.
The versatility of Collette Pollard’s simple but effective set accomplishes similar miracles. A loft above the action houses a jazz combo serving up the rich sound of Peck’s re-imagined score: conductor/pianist Tom Vendafreddo, BJ Cord, Bill Harrison, Nick Moran and Bob Rummage. That same platform doubles as a carnival ride — Charity and Oscar are trapped once again — and tops a lake in Central Park into which a hapless Charity is pushed by her thieving boyfriend in the opening scene. In a larger theater, Charity would end up in the orchestra pit, but this adaptation keeps her front and center — and really, you won’t want to take your eyes off Topol, in her skimpy pink dress (charming costumes by David Hyman) and bobbing pony tale as she adeptly struts her stuff.
“Sweet Charity” is a dance musical — Gwen Verdon played Charity when the show opened on Broadway in 1966, directed and choreographed by Verdon’s husband, Bob Fosse — and Jessica Redish’s choregraphy for Writers’ Theatre smartly compresses the dancers’ movements for maximum oomph in a small area. Tiny movements of heads and limbs add up to dazzling effect.
With a smart book by Neil Simon (based on a Fellini screenplay), catchy music by Cy Coleman (try to get “Big Spender” out of your head) and shrewd lyrics by Dorothy Fields, “Sweet Charity” is richly entertaining throughout its two-and-a-half hours, but it is also surprisingly affecting, and this is where Halberstam’s production excels. This talented ensemble portrays the musical’s quirky characters as real people, and we can’t help but be moved by them.
Anyone who plays the role of Charity must be a triple threat, and Tiffany Topol is certainly that, but above all it is her skill as an actor that keeps this production humming — that, and the abilities of every other ensemble member, all of them accomplished singers, dancers and actors and who play multiple roles. All deserve mention: Karen Burthwright (an exceptional singer), Adam Estes, James Earl Jones, Ericka Mac, Jeff Parker (melodious as film star Vittorio Vidal), Travis Porchia, Liam Quealy, Emily Ariel Rogers (her dancing and long legs will wow you) and Katie Spelman.
“Sweet Charity” has been extended through April 14. Don’t miss it.
Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Through March 31, 2013
Tickets $35 – $75 at box office (376 Park Ave., Glencoe); (847) 242-6000; www.writerstheatre.org
Photos: Michael Brosilow