Review: Sunny ‘Sweet Charity’ vocals short on power
Tiffany Topol and Jarrod Zimmerman in "Sweet Charity" at Writers' Theatre. | Photo by Michael Brosilow
Writers’ Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sundays, through March 31
(847) 242-6000 or visit www.writerstheatre.org
Updated: February 5, 2013 1:06PM
It’s a delicate balance that any actor playing Charity Hope Valentine has to navigate. On the one hand, the “dance hall hostess” is no blushing virgin. Her job comes with built in extra-curricular opportunities that involve the exchange of flesh for cash. On the other hand, Charity has the proverbial heart of gold, along with a vulnerable innocence that evokes the wide-eyed wonder of a guileless child.
Depicting that genuine sweetness alongside carefully calculated, come-hither sensuality is no mean trick. But in Michael Halberstam’s effervescent and warm staging of “Sweet Charity,” Tiffany Topol plays Ms. Valentine with just the right mix of sweetness and sexiness.
Flitting through the escapades of a call girl who wants more out of life than groping dates and tawdry grinds, she’s at once minx and naïf, a girl of who doesn’t allow an ingrained sense of clear-eyed pragmatism (not to mention a knack for continually hooking up with the wrong guys) get in the way of her Prince Charming dreams.
“Sweet Charity,” with book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, has a slight story. We follow Charity through a series of misadventures with dead-end men, creatures she views through a lens of eternally rosy optimism. Though robbed by one man, shoved in a closet by another and abandoned by a third, she never loses her idealism.
In a pink gingham mini-dress (character enhancing costuming by David Hyman), Charity isn’t like the other girls in the dance hall, hardened jades in bodice-boosting bustiers whose dreams have long since been tamped down into resignation and cynicism. Charity perseveres with a generous spirit and a tender heart, even in the face of her own dreams’ repeated dashing. Where others would turn to despair and misanthropy, Charity starts dancing and retains her belief in the inherent goodness of mankind. A trenchant commentary on the sex industry this is not.
Which is absolutely fine. Halberstam has crafted a frothy delight of a production, a staging propelled by Jessica Redish’s giddily marvelous, Fosse-inspired choreography and a palette of bright colors. Sunny lighting puts the more tawdry aspects of the dance hall hostess business into very soft focus.
There’s winning supporting work from Jeff Parker, channeling a mix of Ricardo Montelban and Guido Santini as a Hollywood heartthrob and from Jarrod Zimmerman as Oscar, the therapy-needing obsessive/compulsive whose claustrophobia is the least of his character defects.
The drawback to “Sweet Charity” lies in Doug Peck’s musical direction (ostensibly guided by Halberstam). The vocals in the solo numbers seem curiously dialed down. At times, this “Charity” sounds almost like an acoustic show. Never is this more evident than in James Earl Jones II’s unwisely restrained “Rhythm of Life,” a bit of comic gold wherein Coleman and Fields tap into the hippie culture of Charity’s 1960s setting. Jones is a vocalist who could blow the roof off the place, but he never fully unleashes that power in the rollicking number.
Topol too is tentative; she sounds fine, but you need more than fine on belting numbers such as “I’m a Brass Band” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” If the singing were as spot-on as the dancing, we’d truly have a Charity to be reckoned with.
As it is, “Sweet Charity” is pleasant but not terribly powerful. It’s entertaining to be sure, but it lacks the impact it would have if Halberstam just let his vocalists cut loose.