Tiffany Topol has spent the day getting thrown around, and she could use a drink.
Starring in the title role of Writers’ Theatre’s Sweet Charity, the petite Topol, 28, just had her first day in Writers’ intimate Glencoe space going over fight choreography. She meets me at Troquet, a French restaurant in Ravenswood a few blocks from her home, and orders a spicy Early Morning cocktail with her dinner: a vegetarian sandwich with a fried egg on top. “How am I supposed to eat this?” she asks, leaning forward to make sure she’s heard over the din. We spend much of the next two hours laughing.
Topol talks about her childhood in the Chicago suburbs, the time she won Tiny Miss Illinois 1988, and playing R.P. McMurphy in her high school’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “until now,” she says of the Jack Nicholson part, “maybe the biggest challenge of my life.” She decided early on to pursue a career in musical theater and graduated from Millikin University, where she had her first shot at appearing in Sweet Charity.
“I think I was probably like Rachel Berry from Glee in that room,” Topol says, recalling her overeager audition. “They probably saw that and were like, ‘We’ve gotta knock that girl down a few notches.’ But it’s okay, because I ended up doing Equus instead.”
Since graduating, Topol moved to New York City, booked an international tour (understudying the lead role in Xanadu) and returned to Chicago to become a regular face on the musical-theater circuit. She’s primarily done chorus work in shows like Marriott’s 42nd Street and My One and Only. Sweet Charity could be her breakout role.
Speaking by phone about Topol, Sweet Charity director Michael Halberstam repeatedly uses the phrase triple threat to describe her singing, dancing and acting, along with words like vulnerable, engaging and honest. Doug Peck, the show’s musical director, says, “There’s so much that goes into music-theater training these days to make people flawless. While Tiffany has many of those things, it’s her unique quirk and spark and sense of humor that sets her apart.”
Beyond acting, Topol is a songwriter and plays the flute and ukulele. Her band, Glad Fanny, released the EP My, my, my, a sunny collection of four songs that’s a strong reflection of the woman sitting across from me.
“My favorite thing to do is intimate stuff in smaller houses,” Topol says. “It’s definitely been a challenge to dance in a small space, but I think the payoff is going to be amazing. While Sweet Charity is a dance musical, I think it’s actually more of a book musical, and I don’t think you need the flashy dance numbers that are often associated with it.”
Yet Topol considers energetic, showy dancing one of her biggest strengths, along with “booty dancing” (as she displayed in Marriott’s Legally Blonde).
The actress sees much of herself in Neil Simon’s romantically troubled heroine. She feels Charity’s representative of young people’s tendency to develop relationship patterns that can be difficult to break.
“In order to be a good actor, you have to dig up your past and dig up your flaws, because most of the time you’re going to be playing a character that is flawed and at its deepest, darkest moments,” she says. “The only way it’s going to be good is if you put yourself in it. It’s almost like therapy in a way.”
In previews starting Tuesday 22, Sweet Charity opens Thursday 31.