Tiffany Topol has about everything you could possibly ask from a Charity. She's a terrific dancer, a huge personality and, most crucial of all, she has just the right note of guileless vulnerability.
Charity Hope Valentine, the central character of the 1966 Broadway musical "Sweet Charity" — with book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields — is a tricky gal. She's no vestal virgin. Indeed, some of the other ladies at the dance hall where she works as a hostess are prostitutes in their spare time and we see Charity being plenty chummy with her regular customers. So any depiction of her must come with, shall we say, a certain ease of sensual expression.
Then again, the structure of the show, based on the Federico Fellini movie "Nights of Cabiria," simultaneously relies on Charity being as sweet, naive, needy and lovable as Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz." Trying to pull off both of those sides defeats most actresses, who normally manage no more than one. Topol has the complete character and she throws it all out there in an intimate theater. I suspect many of the North Shore couples who support Writers Theatre in Glencoe will want to take her home with them.
Topol has most everything, in fact, except the voice to really nail a knockout Coleman score that includes such barnstormers as "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "I'm a Brass Band." Her vocal performance is tentative — a combination of her own lack of confidence in her instrument (there is no shame when one is this kinetic a hoofer and delightful a presence) and the way that she has been led in a production directed with an eye toward the dramatic and the conversational.
Director Michael Halberstam's conceit — of which there is a long Chicago tradition — works well at times, especially since it is combined with a hip, "Mad Men"-like style enhanced by such statuesque performers as the redoubtable Ericka Mac and Emily Ariel Rogers, who looks like a refugee from "The Avengers." (The choreography, at its best in its simpler, more spontaneous moments, is by Jessica Redish). Halberstam is clearly determined to center absolutely everything on Charity. An ensemble cast of 10 tells the story quite explicitly as her story.
Keeping Charity center stage is a fine notion, especially when your Charity is this charming. But it also runs into problems.
For one thing, it's hard for Charity to soft-pedal a lyric like, "I'm the band from Macy's big parade." The only way to make such a line work is to belt it out so they can hear you on the Metra — regardless of whether you think you can hit every note.
For another, any kind of gritty interpretation cannot help but collide with Simon's one-liners, many of which are delicious but require a lightness of touch. The biggest problem with this production, though, surrounds Oscar (Jarrod Zimmerman), the young obsessive-compulsive type whom Charity meets in an elevator at the 92nd Street YMCA, and with whom she thinks she may finally find real love. That's especially because her new beau likes hanging out with Daddy (James Earl Jones II) at the Rhythm of Life Church, which was mostly a chance for Simon and Fields to poke fun at Gotham hippies and come up with the kind of standard that the incomparable Sammy Davis Jr. might play in a movie. Jones, who has massive pipes, is a natural for this role. If he'd double the volume and brilliance, funky gospel might really light up the Glencoe night. The show badly needs more bravura vocal moments.
And it needs a jolt of romance. "Sweet Charity" is structured in such a way that you have to really want Charity and Oscar to end up together. Otherwise, the surprise ending can't fully work.
Alas, Zimmerman, who is capable but stiff and overly severe, plays up his character's neuroses at the expense of his likability. To put this another way, he plays the end of the show right from the start. We don't believe that Charity steals his heart in such a way that he can put all his other worries aside, even if they eventually resurface, as nice young men in 1966 are wary of dance-hall hostesses. We need to pull for love, just as Charity takes her chances on its capricious trajectory, all night long. That warmth is present in the lovely scene between Topol's Charity and the movie star Vittorio, played with cliche-killing delicacy by Jeff Parker. But you need it more when Charity meets a guy in whom she wants to believe.
And boy, does Topol work that optimism. Her Pangloss-like attitude, the way she falls and gets right back up, her palpable determination that this day may turn out to be the best of all possible days, is quite astoundingly infectious, whatever else may (or may not) be happening around her. She is, you feel sure, the bravest individual you have ever met.
When: Through March 31
Where: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35-$75 at 847-242-6000 or writerstheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, RedEye