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Article updated: 2/7/2013 11:11 AM

Reimagined score and winsome leading lady make 'Charity' sweet

By Barbara Vitello

We first meet Tiffany Topol's Charity Hope Valentine kicking up her heels (literally) center stage at Writers' Theatre. And what an engaging introduction it is to director Michael Halberstam's exuberant, conscientiously acted revival of "Sweet Charity," the 1960s musical by Cy Coleman (music), Dorothy Fields (lyrics) and Neil Simon (book) about the misadventures of a dance hall hostess whose terrible taste in men usually leaves her all wet (literally).

Surrounded in the opening number by impassive New Yorkers, Topol's jubilant dancing contrasts with their dour disinterest, a reflection of the titular character's big heart and endless good cheer, which the winsome, sweet-voiced Topol winningly conveys. In her pink dress and ponytail, Topol's bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked Charity remains a hopeful romantic. This despite a couple of near drownings and a career, which fellow Fandango Ballroom taxi dancer Nickie (a cynical, saucy Karen Burthwright) observes involves not so much dancing as "defending ourselves to music."

There's something imminently appealing about Halberstam's production, with music direction by Doug Peck and choreography by Jessica Redish of Highland Park's The Music Theatre Company.

Writers' incarnation remains very much a dance show thanks to the talented Redish, whose head-bobbing, hip-shaking, shoulder-rolling moves offer a tip of the top hat to Bob Fosse, the tuner's original conceiver/director/choreographer. Yet her choreography is fun, fresh and original. Her "Frug" is delicious and her choreography for the tap-centric "I'm a Brass Band" has an old-school appeal.

As for Coleman's jazzy score featuring brassy tunes ("Big Spender"), lush ballads ("Too Many Tomorrows") and Broadway-style belters ("I'm a Brass Band"), Peck has reorchestrated it for a jazz quintet, ably led by pianist/conductor Tom Vendafreddo and including BJ Cord, Bill Harrison, Nick Moran and Bob Rummage. Deconstructing the score makes more vivid its colors, especially those expressed by the winds and trumpet.

Not only does Peck's masterfully stripped-down approach suit Writers' space, it complements Halberstam's very personal take on Charity's bittersweet tale.

There is poignancy and subtlety to the performances that is often absent in a larger venue where the kind of nuance displayed by Halberstam's cast could be lost. Topol's touching performance exemplifies this. This close, nothing Charity feels escapes us, not even the slightest sting. We perceive the desperation in Topol's eyes when she begs Jarrod Zimmerman's endearingly anxious Oscar not to leave her. When she insists, "I've got so much to give," we believe her. How could we not? We hear it in her voice and we see it in her expression.

That said, for all of her charm and guilelessness, Topol lacks vocal heft. As a result, she is sometimes overwhelmed by the musicians, who play aloft on what serves as the Fandango Ballroom balcony, from which her jaded colleagues entice big spenders. As for Zimmerman -- whose Oscar is self-aware enough to recognize a scoundrel when he sees one -- he is laugh-out-loud funny during his elevator scene with Topol.

Jeff Parker is ideal as Vittorio Vidal, the suave Italian film star Charity meets outside of a nightclub after he's abandoned by his girlfriend, an icy Russian blonde played by the statuesque Emily Ariel Rogers (who also does a mean frug). Parker puts his grand voice to use in the Italian-accented "Too Many Tomorrows," winning us over not just with the quality of his singing but with his sincerity, making for a quite-affecting scene.

Last but not least, James Earl Jones II earns kudos for a brief but potent turn as Daddy Brubeck, a former San Francisco jazzman turned street preacher whose motley flock meets below a Manhattan underpass. Jones' cool charm and big voice, paired with Peck's excellent chorus, make for a near-showstopping version of the show's hipster anthem "Rhythm of Life," which Writers' proves doesn't need a big stage to make a lasting impact.

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