Saturday, February 2, 2013

NEWCITY REVIEW: 'Sweet Charity' at Writers' Theatre

Photo: Michael Brosilow
“Sweet Charity” is the pet name neurotic accountant Oscar Lindquist (Jarrod Zimmerman) gives Charity Hope Valentine (Tiffany Topol), a dance-hall hostess he’s fallen in love with after only a few dates. During their manic initial encounter on a stalled elevator, the claustrophobe is quite literally head over heels. When those two words, “Sweet Charity,” first escape Oscar’s mouth, it’s a stark moment of discovery for the guy and a huge victory for an audience who has been anxiously awaiting a knight to swoop in and give this wonderful girl his full attention. But can all that romance get too sugary?
For New York Times theater critic Stanley Kauffmann, it can and did. An Americanization of Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” “Sweet Charity,” despite its steel-cold cyclical finale, was poorly received by Kauffmann in 1966 because of the familiar characters and its, well, sweetness. “The good-hearted dumb broad is one of the oldest stage clichés,” he wrote after pummeling playwright Neil Simon’s book of “pattern dialogue” and Cy Coleman’s score (lyrics by Dorothy Fields) in which “there is not even a tune that one would want to remember.” Ouch.
Well, Kauffmann was reviewing a production far, far removed from the full-blooded, euphoric, soulful, no-holds-barred fantastic “Sweet Charity” that opened on Thursday night at Writers’ Theatre in Glencoe. Director Michael Halberstam’s seductive, peripatetic revival takes the musical comedy’s titular sucrose and introduces an undercurrent of real-world misfortune, so honest and recognizably human. This is a “Charity” that resonates with everybody, but especially with those folks who are stuck in a rut, looking to make a big splashy change.

The production makes some big changes, itself. Through its steady supply of belly laughs and enamoring forward motion, there’s a maturity to Charity’s wild escapades through Manhattan’s high and low society. For one, the story is completely excised of the usual schmaltz associated with musicals—an appealing temptation lurking around every corner in a Gwen Verdon star-vehicle that structurally borrows many a page from the Broadway playbook. Thankfully, Writers’ production has burned the playbook to an ashen crisp.
Halberstam has trail-blazed in the opposite direction. “Sweet Charity,” a classic by most standards, has a cast of only eleven sublimely transformative actors, an orchestra of five (lead by Tom Vendafreddo with music direction by Doug Peck) and a set by Collette Pollard of a collection of chairs and tables with a cameo appearance by a settee.  The production’s size isn’t the only intimate attribute, either. The spoken scenes, usually a means to a song, are scintillatingly performed with the utmost secrecy. They’re sly, unexpected and keep you so far on the edge of your seat that you can smell the shampoo of the person sitting in front.