The Timber Lake Playhouse's current production of Sweet Charity features the single most electrifying, exhilarating dance number I've ever seen on a stage. I'm well aware of what a sweeping and potentially exaggerated generalization that statement is, and almost hesitate in making it, because it's the type of effusive praise that can easily make theatre-goers (to say nothing of theatre participants) roll their eyes and say, "Oh, come on." But I'll say it again: Sweet Charity features the single most electrifying, exhilarating dance number I've ever seen on a stage. And I'm betting that fellow patrons at Thursday's performance might easily feel the same way.
Although originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Bob Fosse, Sweet Charity doesn't actually contain a whole lot of choreography, even given a two-and-a-half-hour running length. This tale of a plucky "dance-hall hostess" seeking romance and escape from her life of bumping and grinding (and likely performing other services) for money does feature several solos and the occasional dance duet or trio. But as far as those physically demanding, rhythmically precise, unspeakably sexy group numbers - true Fosse! numbers - are concerned, there are really only three to speak of. In director Lili-Anne Brown's Timber Lake presentation, three are all you need. In the case of Act I's "Rich Man's Frug" routine, one is all you need.
With Sweet Charity set in the swinging New York City of 1966 (the year the show debuted on Broadway), this transcendent number takes place in a chichi downtown nightclub, where our heroine Charity (Alexandra E. Palkovic) is about to enjoy dinner with suave screen idol Vittorio Vidal (Patrick Connaghan). Yet before dining, they, and we, are first treated to an exactingly choreographed floor show, performed here by lead dancer Kelsey Andres, backup hoofers Henry McGinniss and Tyler Sawyer Smith, and roughly a dozen members of the ensemble (among them the playhouse's Artistic Director James Beaudry). And what follows, for lovers of musical theatre, is seven minutes of absolute, undiluted rapture.
Adapting Fosse's legendary efforts for Timber Lake, featured dancer Smith receives an "original choreography re-conceived by ... " program credit, but whatever his contributions, the man also deserves an immediate pay raise or a big hug or something; just how many hours did it take to stage and rehearse this freakin' thing? Against the smooth, jazzy strains of Cy Coleman's score, wonderfully played by conductor Travis Horton's orchestra, "Rich Man's Frug" opens with a series of sleek, insinuating '60s moves, the dancers' undulating bodies (and the long drags and deep exhales on McGinniss' and Smith's cigarettes) suggesting the coolest, hippest, most provocative party you've never been invited to. As the number grows in fervor and choreographic complexity, though - with arms, legs, wrists, and heads oftentimes moving in stunning unison - what was already an enticing routine morphs into one that's almost staggeringly alert and alive. The phenomenally accomplished Andres, McGinniss, and Smith will deservedly steal much of your focus, but do your best to find a cast member up there who isn't performing with exceptional skill and low-key ebullience. I sure couldn't.
Those trained in the art of dance could no doubt do a finer job of explaining the magnificence of "Rich Man's Frug" than I can. Let me just say, then, that on Thursday, the first musical break in this seven-minute routine elicited a wildly enthusiastic ovation. The second break found loud cheers mixed with the clapping. The third inspired even louder cheers and louder applause. And when the entirety of this exhausting, ridiculously thrilling dance finally concluded ... well, fuggedaboutit.
And would you believe that Timber Lake's Sweet Charity features two group sequences that nearly match this one? The first is the musical's signature tune, "Big Spender," which director Brown's dance-hall septet performs in brash, decadently confident style, spitting out Dorothy Fields' lyrics with relish and wearing the hell out of designers Tate Ellis' and Katy Freeman's one-piece dresses and fishnets. (They're about the Fosse-est Fosse costumes imaginable.) The second is the jazz-meets-heavy-metal extravaganza "Rhythm of Life," in which Smith - channeling David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust days - all but explodes with feral intensity, and leads a throng of leather-clad acolytes in a delirious hymn to the power of disorganized religion. Performed under Matt Guninski's smoky, richly hued lighting effects on scenic artist Anthony Luetkenhaus' beauty of a set (with particular kudos for the designer's slapstick-ready street fountain), these numbers fill you with a glorious happiness - the kind you feel every time Palkovic sings, dances, jokes, smiles, or, you know, just stands there.
In her "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "I'm a Brass Band" showcases, the performer delivers tireless song-and-dance bonhomie, and her wide, effervescent smile - reminiscent of Annette Bening's - exudes unfailing sweetness. But by the time Palkovic makes her hushed exit after so much radiant optimism and cheer, you may feel you've developed a special, almost parental bond with the actress' Charity; you feel protective of this charming and utterly real figure that Palkovic has created, and when her heart breaks, yours does, too. It's a sensational musical-comedy turn, and Palkovic finds marvelous acting partners in Connaghan, with his hysterical Latin-lover arrogance, and in Andrew Harth's Oscar Lindquist, who arrives as a milquetoast hypochondriac and emerges, maybe, as the man of Charity's dreams. With his nerdy charisma and continually unpredictable inflections (the actor's voice gets higher when you expect it to get lower, and vice versa), Harth is fabulous here, and his stalled-elevator breakdown is a priceless piece of apoplectic hilarity; even his vocals on notes that appear just beyond his reach come to seem just right for Harth's addled, lovingly goofy character.
If I've thus far neglected to mention Sweet Charity's book scenes, it's because they're written by Neil Simon, and I don't want to sully my enormous fondness for this show by admitting that I kind of hated them. Smug and obvious in the way of most of the playwright's stage sitcoms ("Is she dead?" "How should I know? I've never seen her before!"), the dialogue here is infuriating; the cast and the musical numbers frequently send you to the moon, and Simon's relentless wisecracking and maudlin detours keep knocking you back down to earth. And beyond Charity and her two beaus, Simon doesn't appear to have sketched in the other characters at all. Daryn Harrell and Julia Mitchell, as Chastity's de rigueur streetwise gal pals, pull off their musical numbers exceedingly well, but they're basically playing the same person; their scenes suggest Fosse's Chicago if Velma Kelly performed the whole show in front of a mirror.
Yet Harrell, Mitchell, and numerous others in the ensemble carry the day with their musical talents, and even when the show's book and plotting fail her, Brown orchestrates the stage action with great, comic aplomb; on Thursday, there was mid-show applause both for a perfectly timed comic bit involving Chastity, a closet, and a bottle of beer, and for the slo-o-o-ow exit of Sophie Brown's elderly waitress, who appeared to be suffering from arthritis, bursitis, and bunions. Neil Simon's contributions aside, Timber Lake's Sweet Charity is musical-comedy dynamite. In its most explosively enjoyable scenes, you might be convinced that dynamite is literal.
For tickets and information, call (815)244-2035 or visit TimberLakePlayhouse.org.