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'Sweet Charity’ at Oakland U surrounds audience in immersive ‘60s musical

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'Sweet Charity' at Oakland University

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Before Bob Fosse wowed the world with the wicked women of “Chicago”, he teamed up with the great Neil Simon (book) and Cy Coleman /Dorothy Fields (music and lyrics) to present the tender-hearted Charity Hope Valentine. The play “Sweet Charity” is an adaptation of the story told in Federico Fellini’s film “Nights of Cabiria” about a young prostitute who believes each beau is her prince charming.

Oakland University’s Department of Music, Theatre and Dance has staged a revival of this lovely musical that delivers on many levels. Directed by Anthony Guest, with Musical Direction by Fred Love the play is performed almost in the round in the Varner Studio Theatre. In fact, it’s more accurate to say “all around” – because Guest pushes the action all the way to the outer walls of the theatre using a network of catwalks and stairways that put the audience in the midst of the action.

Clever scenic, lighting and sound design (Jason Maracani, Kerro Knox3, and Josh Williams) are used to direct the audience’s attention to different points on the multi-level staging area that alternately represent a park near the lake, an upscale apartment, the shabby Fan-Dango Ballroom, a jammed YMCA elevator, and a Coney Island parachute ride.

Fosse’s trademark choreography is reinterpreted for this small, 360-degree space by Greg Patterson, who gives his young dancers a rigorous workout that they seem to embrace. The intimate space is used to advantage, as tightly-grouped production numbers – with literally no room for error – underscore the claustrophobia of urban living.

Of course, what it really comes down to is a terrific cast . This young company embraces the fundamental ‘60s sea-change that saw a new generation starting to push back against established moral codes… and Broadway conventions.

Our heroine, Charity, is played by Jacléne Wilk with an infectious combination of street-wise cynicism and denial-based optimism. A taxi dancer at the Fan-Dango Club, she is in love with love, and is attracted to all the wrong men. Her friends at the club try to set her straight, but no one really wants to undo the fundamental generosity of heart that makes Charity tick. Wilk is a tiny dynamo of talent – she sells her songs with both craftsmanship and authentic comic appeal to give us a memorable, adorable Charity Valentine.

The show has many fine moments that showcase the talents of more than 20 gifted actors. The featured players include: Lindsay Maron as Nickie, Rachel Hull as Helene, Joshua Steckelberg as Oscar, Nathan Larkins as Vittorio, Amanda Rae Evans as Ursula, Olivia Griffin as Daddy Brubeck, and Mitch McFee as Herman. Favorite songs from “Sweet Charity” include “Hey, Big Spender,” “Rhythm of Life,” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”

“Sweet Charity” runs through March 30 with a variety of evening and matinee performances. Tickets are available online or before the show at the Varner Studio Theatre box office; prices are $18 General, $10 Students, $10 children, and 10 a.m. matinee. Show times are as follows.

Thursday, March 20 at 8 p.m.
Friday, March 21 at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Saturday, March 22 at 8 p.m.
Sunday, March 23 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Wednesday, March 26 and 8 p.m.
Thursday, March 27 at 8 p.m.
Friday, March 28 at 8 p.m.
Saturday, March 29 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Sunday, March 30 at 2 p.m.

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