Tiffany Topol Charms as SWEET CHARITY

Fandango Girls, Spelman, Mac, Burthwright, RogersREVIEWED BY: MELODY UDELL

It truly must’ve been a “fickle finger of fate” that brought Tiffany Topol to play the lead role in the Writer’s Theatre production of Sweet Charity. Her version of Charity Hope Valentine, the ever-optimistic, hopelessly naïve hostess at a 1960s dance hall, is brimming with vulnerability and a likeable, indefatigably cheerful personality. Unlike Broadway versions past, Topol is less of an in-your-face, emotion-laden belter and more of a quirky stage sprite who’s just getting used to the spotlight. In a word, charming.

Topol’s appealing take on Charity (originated by Gwen Verdon on Broadway and Shirley MacLaine in Hollywood) helps take the focus off a story that becomes increasingly muddled. The show starts off simply enough — Charity is heartbroken over yet another good-for-nothing ex-boyfriend, and she’s more than ready to escape her dead-end job. On a fluke, she runs into handsome movie star Vittorio Vidal (Jeff Parker), who’s nursing his own broken heart. Though Vittorio is charmed by her bubbliness, Charity ends up helping Vittorio make up with his girlfriend. Happy from the way things turned out, she heads to the YMCA, only to get stuck in the elevator with Oscar (Jarrod Zimmerman), a neurotic yet sweet accountant who had been working on overcoming shyness in Charity’s self-expression class.  After a bizarre date at a jazz-revival led by James Earl Jones, Jr. as a booming gypsy pastor, the two fall in love. And Charity keeps mum on her dance hall gig, for good reason.

Tiffany Topol, Jarrod Zimmerman balcony vertA few fun tunes are peppered throughout the plot, including the show-stopping “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and the hilariously slapstick take on “I’m the Bravest Individual.” But however satisfying the performances, some songs seem shoehorned into the plot — namely “The Rhythm of Life,” which is merely a vehicle for some dazzling choreography. And while everyone loves an over-the-top dance break (kudos to choreographer Jessica Redish), it ultimately doesn’t do much for Charity’s plight.

The intimate venue at Writer’s Theatre is a boon to the show — tight stage direction by Michael Halberstam takes up every inch of space, and despite a cast performing triple-duty, it certainly doesn’t feel crammed or pared down. The iconic “Big Spender” number — performed by Charity’s jaded dance-hall friends — is every bit as satisfying as it should be; each girl masking her sadness with a hilarious amount of showgirl sass.

Ultimately, Sweet Charity can stand alone on the strength of its performances (especially Topol’s) and seamless execution from the crew — an impressive feat in such a small space. If you can forgive a girl her heartbreaking naivety — and a show its wending plotlines — Sweet Charity is a more than satisfying, charming night of theater.

SWEET CHARITY runs through March 31, 2013 at Writers’ Theatre, 664 Vernon Avenue, Glencoe.  Prices: Prices for all performances range from $35 – $70;  Box Office: The Box Office is located at 376 Park Avenue, Glencoe; 847-242-6000;  For calendar information please visit