The 1966 musical Sweet Charity is, charitably speaking, an odd duck. While the score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields contains such enduring earworms as “Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” the story of the all-too-optimistic Manhattan “dance-hall hostess” Charity Hope Valentine is jaggedly told. Loosely based on Federico Fellini’s 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, about the travails of a Roman prostitute, the musical—conceived by Bob Fosse and with a corny book by Neil Simon—doesn’t seem to have a thesis, pinging its plucky heroine from one episode to another with little sense of direction.
Yet despite the show’s on-paper weirdness, in the right hands it can overflow with charm—as it does in Michael Halberstam’s magnetically intimate revival at Writers’ Theatre. Halberstam smartly reduces the cast to 11 well-selected actors. The clubby confines of his staging give more credibility (or at least forgivability) to the strange turns of Charity’s story, like her extended Act I encounter with international movie star Vittorio Vidal. At such close range, it seems more reasonable that Vidal plays such a key role in the proceedings yet never returns; isn’t that how these things happen?
Musical director Doug Peck updates the arrangements, making Coleman’s score sound more jazzy than Broadway brassy. Act II’s “The Rhythm of Life,” a generic hippie parody that Coleman and Fields could have inserted into any show, cooks with vitality as led by James Earl Jones II and choreographed by Jessica Redish. The gangly Jarrod Zimmerman finds an ideal role in nebbishy, neurotic love interest Oscar Lindquist; even if he can’t fully sell Simon’s unconvincing denouement, his claustrophobic reaction to a stalled elevator is a triumphant bit of physical comedy.
And then there’s this production’s real discovery: Tiffany Topol. As the open-hearted and out-of-luck broad at the play’s center, Topol exerts a captivating charisma as well as accomplished dance skill and impressive acting. Whether or not her friends could believe it if they could see her now, you’ll be able to say you saw her when.