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Talk About a Dazzling Display of Perfect Performances-- Well, this Musical at the Lesher Theatre in Walnut Creek Takes the Cake. Even Better than the Original Broadway Musical


By Lee Hartgrave
June 14, 2013

This American musical takes us on a fabulous journey as we follow the somewhat nutty Charity Hope Valentine. She works as a taxi dancer along with her friends, Nickie and Helen. 

Charity longs for real love, but has bad luck with men. In one scene  Charity is robbed and pushed off a bridge by an ex-boyfriend. As if that isn't humiliating enough - she has an encounter with Vittorio Vidal - a movie star. 

Charity tries to find a new job but has little luck. She runs into Oscar Lindquist as they both wait for an Elevator. When they get into the Elevator -- it gets stuck. Yep, it doesn't move. Charity takes it blandly, but Oscar goes bi-polar. They talk, while being stuck in the Elevator -- but Charity doesn't tell Oscar that she is a dance hall girl. 

After a farewell party at a Ballroom, Charity and Oscar suddenly announce that he cannot go through with the wedding, saying he is unable to stop thinking that Charity has dated other men. 

THE ABSOLUTELY MESMERIZING ACTORS ARE: James Monroe Iglehart, Tielle Baker, Molly Bell, Ryan Cowles, Brittany Danielle, Amanda Denison, Alison Ewing, Nicole Helfer, Daniel Hurst, Calia Johnson, Garrick Macatangay, Justin Madfes, Keith Pinto, Katie Pogue, Colin Thomson and Catherine Williamson. 

Believe me this is "A Great Night At The Theater!" It's a breathtaking achievement. Period." 

The fantastic Art Direction is by Michael Butler. Timothy Near gives the stunning Direction.Great choreography is by Jennifer Perry, and the triumphant musical direction is by Sean Kana. 

You're gonna love this show. It's a must see! "Better than Broadway!"

RATING: FOUR GLASSES OF CHAMPAGNE!!!! (highest rating) -trademarked-

(Lee Hartgrave has contributed many articles to the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Datebook Section and he produced a long-running Arts Segment on PBS KQED)


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'Sweet Charity' at Center REP is a dynamite MUST SEE show


By Kedar Adour
May 22, 2013

Sweet Charity at Center REP is a dynamite MUST SEE show.

The “must see” in the headline is intentionally in capital letters to emphasize the quality of Center REP’s stunning production. Neil Simon should put Timothy Near on his payroll to direct his plays. A year ago Timothy Near directed Simon’s comedy/farce Rumors for Center REP and it was a total winner. Yes, Neil Simon is credited with the book for Sweet Charity but he was aided and abetted by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ music and lyrics that fit like a glove into the story line.

Although the storyline was lifted from the black and white Fellini film Nights of Cabiria, Simon and cohorts cleaned it up a bit making the main character a dance-hall hostess rather than a woman of the streets. When it opened on Broadway it starred Bob Fosse’s wife Gwen Verdon as the poor put upon ever hopeful Charity. Gwen Verdon put her stamp on the role when Sweet Charity opened on Broadway in 1966 (47 years ago!!) and now the multi-talented Molly Bell can add her name to the short list of those who were great in the part.

From the simply but classily staged opening number with only a flowering tree and green park bench for props, Charity Hope Valentine sashays to footlight telling us the wonderful things her present amoretti Charlie will say to her in “You Should See Yourself” before he dumps her into the lake and takes off with all of her money.

After being sort of rescued by a park policeman she heads to her job at the Fandango Ballroom. Charity defends Charlie but Nickie (Allison Ewing) tells her “you run your heart like a hotel — you’ve always got people checking in and checking out.” Fandango boss Herman (local favorite Colin Thomson) tells them to break it up and get to work. Boy and do they go to work as they carry a railing made of two pipes to center stage dressed in garishly gorgeous costumes bringing applause from the audience with the hysterical and hysterically danced “Big Spender.” Choreographer Jennifer Perry wisely keeps the “Fosse touch” to the dancing and the ensemble responds with exuberance and precision and you will get exhausted watching them do the “Rich Man’s Frug.”

Charity’s next encounter with screen star Vittorio Vidal (Noel Anthony) ends up as a disappointment but before that happens director Near puts her stamp on the hilarious scene that leads to a tour de force bit for Molly/Charity with “If My Friends Could See Me Now” using only a autographed photo, top hat and cane. Noel Anthony is a perfect foil for Molly Bell and plays his role with a straight face and gets to sing “Too Many Tomorrows” before he shoves her into his closet when his true love Ursala (Brittany Danielle) shows up. Charity’s time in the closet brings out some extremely funny stage action not to be revealed here.

Before the first act ends Charity gets stuck in an elevator with nice-guy Oscar (Kieth Pinto) who is claustrophobic and she sort of rescues him with the assurance “I’m the Bravest Individual” before the lights go out. End of Act I.

What do the writer’s have up their sleeves for a second act opening? They come up with a winner with the “Rhythm of Life” song and dance to end all hippie dances. Center REP has imported full body sized James Monroe Iglehart to play Daddy Brubeck and he is an absolute marvel in voice and dance bringing the house down with his actions. It helps that the entire cast gives him support.

You get the idea of the kind of fun you are in for when, not if, you go to see Timothy Near’s opus. The staging sets, rotating lights, orchestra and lighting are marvels. Although Anthony, Iglehart, Pinto and Colin Thompson hold their own, this show belongs to the ladies. Two standouts are Alison Ewing and Brittany Danielle who get two spots in the show to display their talents as singers and dancers. They are ready to take on the lead roles as Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly whenever the musical Chicagorolls around. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes but it races by and be assured you will never look at your watch.


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Molly Bell shines in “Sweet Charity”—a reason to tunnel to the warm side!



By John McMullen
May 27, 2013

For those of you who do not live on the warm side of the Caldecott, you need to know that there is an incredibly talented musical theatre actress who is worth the drive (or via BART a few blocks away).

Molly Bell* is Broadway professional in the talent department. In Sweet Charity, now at Center Rep at the Margaret Lesher Theatre, she makes you forget about Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 movie. She exudes the requisite innocence, vivacity, and feistiness of Charity Hope Valentine in this very dated, bittersweet musical. I was astounded that she was the same sophisticated lady who wowed us in the Cole Porter tribute “The Marvelous Party” at Center Rep three years ago. I never saw the legendary Gwen Verdon who created the role on Broadway, but Ms. Bell brings a naïve core with an unconquerable soul to the role that makes it about the character as much as about her inspired singing and dancing.

Jennifer Perry’s choreography does justice to the Bob Fosse tradition. Sweet Charity was the late, great Fosse’s concept, with book by Neil Simon,and music by Cy Coleman who won five Tonys. Coleman wrote standards like “Witchcraft” and “The Best is Yet to Come,” and his musicals “On the Twentieth Century” and “Will Rogers Follies” and “City of Angels” still get a lot of play. Lyrics are by Betty Fields who wrote standards like "I Can't Give You Anything But Love", "Exactly Like You", "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and "The Way You Look Tonight." Her major musical was “Annie Get Your Gun.”

The two well-known songs from “Sweet Charity” are “If They Could See Me Now,” which Molly Bell knocks out of the park (pardon the baseball metaphor: I had dinner at Willie McCovey’s a block away post Sunday afternoon matinee), and the catchy and libidinous “Hey, Big Spender.”

The musical is simple: Manhattan dance hall girl (not quite a hooker) is a love addict who can’t find love. She meets a shy accountant in a stuck elevator. It seems simple and a throw-back in this era of musicals about schizophrenics, the ravages of AIDS, and teenage sex and suicide. But it was written in 1966 on the cusp of the Feminist Revolution, and while it proceeds for a while in a simplistic plotting, it turns out not to be an easy girl meets boy, etc., formula.

It was fashioned after Federico Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” and even has a Marcello Mastroianni-like character with whom she nearly has a one-night stand. Noel Anthony* is masterful in both his resonant and impressive baritone and his portrayal of a smooth Roman cinema idol.

Seems dance hall girls were the forerunner to the lap-dancer. A man paid for a dance and the groping game commenced with the dancer removing the man’s hand as fast as he could grab. Some took it a little further for a cash supplement.

It was a well-fashioned cast, with Alison Ewing* and Brittany Danielle* as Nickie and Helene, the dance hall mother superior and her sidekick at the Fandango Dance Hall, and Keith Pinto* as Oscar, the nerdy groom-to-be, who pairs superbly with our lead. Kurt Landisman provides his usual superior lighting, with an easy and functional sliding door set by Annie Smart. The costumes by Christine Crook are what you would expect from a 1960’s musical from the era of “Be-in” and “Hair.” Sean Kana’s musical direction is award-worthy, with little snatches of barber-shop quartet and a marvelous blend of voices, particularly in Nickie and Helene’s duet "Baby, Dream Your Dream."

One of the most memorable scenes is of an adventurous visit the unlikely couple makes to a San Francisco-transplanted hippie church “The Rhythm of Life.” James Monroe Iglehart* as “Big Daddy,” the leader of the cult, is an overwhelming presence on the stage, who moves his prodigious bulk gracefully with a gospel-powered, rock-the-house voice. (Reminded this reviewer of the “Church of John Coltrane”; however, it seemed ironic in hindsight memory of Jim Jones and David Koresh.)

After reviewing the dense and attention-demanding “Copenhagen” and “Arcadia” last week, this was light, entertaining fun fare that was refreshing in contrast. It’s all about the talent and the production values, and worth the time to bring a smile on a Sunday afternoon.


Review: 'Sweet Charity' at Center REP a musical that keeps on giving


By Pat Craig
May 22, 2013

As written, "Sweet Charity" is a good musical with some memorable, near-classic tunes and some wonderful characters.

It becomes a great musical, though, when a top-notch cast and crew present it in its best light.

Center REPertory Company's production of "Sweet Charity," led by Molly Bell's take-no-prisoners performance in the title role, is a great musical -- perhaps the best ever to play at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center.

Director Timothy Near, with a tremendous assist by choreographer Jennifer Perry, wrings every drop of emotion out of the musical with what is essentially an all-star cast playing at its highest level.

Bell, a triple-threat performer who could coax a smile out of a rock, starts the show by herself on stage. Truthfully, you wouldn't mind if the entire show was just her, flashing that thousand-watt grin and conjuring memories of your first crush. She is a flat-out force of nature.

But there is plenty more talent to show up on stage, on a set designed to replicate 1960s New York, which wasn't exactly the happiest place on earth. The focal point is the Fandango Club, a dime-a-dance joint that isn't exactly the Rainbow Room. The gentlemen who visit the Fandango tend to be a little grabby, which annoys the girls. Despite their grim surroundings, the dancers are a sassy bunch who view their lot with a funny sort of humor. That is demonstrated in "Big Spender," one of the play's signature tunes, performed by Nickie and Helene (Alison Ewing and Brittany Danielle) and the Fandango Dancers. They're all waiting for Charity to show up after she has been robbed by an unreliable fiancé.

Poor Charity. She's a bad-luck gal who always seems to find the bright side of things, even as she's being derided by the dance hall boss, Herman (played beautifully by Colin Thomson).

Charity finally finds the man she's looking for in Oscar Lindquist (Keith Pinto), whom she meets in a stalled elevator. Pinto is delightful in the part, creating a claustrophobic Prince Charming that Charity finds irresistible.

Center REP's production is filled with delightful little surprises, such as James Monroe Iglehart, who turns up as Daddy Brubeck, a minister from San Francisco who preaches the gospel of jazz and sets his parishioners dancing, then rules the stage with a dance of his own.

Then there's Vittorio Vidal (Noel Anthony), a movie star who becomes one of Charity's romances. It's a brief affair, but Anthony makes the most of it with his memorable characterization.

Near's direction is superb. She creates time for each character to deliver a unique and often funny characterization, which makes the play all the richer. She also creates a wonderful rhythm for the show -- mostly speedy, but slowing down when necessary.

"Sweet Charity" is staged in a minimal fashion, with small set pieces representing the various locations. That design, created by Annie Smart, is tremendously effective.


Actress Molly Bell Carries the Day in Center REP's production of Sweet Charity


By Jan Miller
May 24, 2013

Center Repertory Company of Walnut Creek, Calif. closes its 2012-13 season in stunning style in which the cast of “Sweet Charity” turns a good musical into a truly great one! Molly Bell, in the title role of Charity Hope Valentine, literally brings the audience to its feet with her versatility as a singer, dancer, and overall performer. Her stage presence, especially when she sings ‘If they Could See Me Now’, brings the house down.

Charity Hope Valentine is the girl who wants to be loved so much that she sings, dances, laughs and cries her way through prospective romances with an assortment of guys, including Oscar Lindquist (Keith Pinto), whom she happens upon in a stalled elevator, only to find disappointment in her quest to find Prince Charming.

Yet, as outstanding as Bell is, the supporting cast is equally brilliant.

The time is the 1960s; the place is the Fandango Club, a low-level dance joint in New York which attracts an equally low-level clientele. Still, the dancers, led by Nickie and Helene (Alison Ewing and Brittany Danielle) are a feisty bunch with a sense of humor, and their collective rendition of “Hey Big Spender,” one of the play’s big numbers, is staged as well as anything performed on Broadway.

Like all great American classics, “Sweet Charity” is about transformation. Ever the optimist, Charity goes on a journey and in every scene she learns something. She believes in love and she never stops believing that. But as she goes through her journey, she begins to learn to love and respect herself.

This Tony Award-winning Neil Simon play was made famous by Bob Fosse, and now it bursts onto the Lesher stage with all the singing and dancing one could hope for!

“Sweet Charity” plays through June 22 at the Dean Lesher Theatre. With a cast led by the very talented Molly Bell, Noel Anthony (who plays Vittorio Vidal), and and great ensemble, “Sweet Charity” is a fun dance musical that everyone will really enjoy.

Sweet Charity has been given an excellent revival from Center REP


By George Heymont
May 31, 2013

The musical adaptation of Fellini's film, Sweet Charity, landed on Broadway in January of 1966 with a book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The original production featured a thrilling transition to Charity's workplace, the Fandango Ballroom, created by Robert Randolph (who  designed both sets and lighting).

The star of the show was Gwen Verdon (a beloved Broadway icon whose husband, Bob Fosse, directed and choreographed Sweet Charity). While Fosse's production numbers were famous for spoofing cultural trends ("The Rich Man's Frug" and "The Rhythm of Life"), Sweet Charity gave him a chance to mold a major musical around the talents of the woman who was both his wife and his muse.

Sweet Charity has been given an excellent revival from Center Rep in Walnut Creek (which was made even more delightful by the fact that it was performed in the intimate 300-seat Margaret Lesher Theatre). Molly Bell stars as the hooker who keeps hoping that some day, somehow, someone will love her.

Under Timothy Near’s direction, Bell got sturdy support from Alison Ewing as Nickie and Brittany Danielle (doubling as Helene and Ursula). The various men bedeviling Charity were portrayed by Noel Anthony as Italian film star Vittorio Vidal, Keith Pinto as Oscar Lindquist, Colin Thompson as Herman (the owner of the Fandango Ballroom), and as James Monroe Iglehart as “Big Daddy Brubeck.”

Jennifer Perry’s choreography was obviously inspired by Fosse’s work in the original Broadway production; Neil Simon’s book remains a bedrock of comic writing. The miracle of Charity's character is that she never succumbs to the bitter disillusionment of her fellow taxi dancers at the Fandango Ballroom. No matter how many men hump and dump her, she never loses faith that someday she will meet Prince Charming.

Whereas Gwen Verdon's voice gave many of the characters she portrayed a unique vulnerability (it certainly helped make Charity more of a Chaplinesque figure than a pathetic emotional doormat), Center Rep's revival  takes a more determinedly positive approach to Charity's problems. Some notable changes from the original production include a musical number for Oscar ("Good Impression") that was added to the second act. As in the 2005 revival starring Christina Applegate, Charity's basic black sheath has been traded in for a bright red dress. As embodied by the tireless Molly Bell (who has the energy of a cheerleader), this Charity is a whole lot perkier.

Performances of Sweet Charity continue at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek through June 22. If you've only seen the film adaptation, you should really treat yourself to a live performance.




Sweet Charity smash


By Sara Hare
May 24, 2013

It was opening night at The Lesher Center. Actors in the new Center REP production, Sweet Charity, were taking final bows. The audience rose from their seats, many clapping wildly, others hooting. The lights went down and all of a sudden I completely lost track of where I was. I’m years from a senior moment, but standing there in the middle of the intimate Margaret Lesher Theater with the glow of the lights on the red costumes and the thrum of big Broadway music (“Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now” are two of the best known tunes of this remarkable show) there was a moment, the briefest of moments, when I was transported to New York, the city of my birth and where, truth be told, at an early age my parents indulged me in far too much theater. But that’s another story.

When Sweet Charity arrived on Broadway in the 60s it was nominated for an impossible number of Tonys (12, I believe) and brought fame and fortune to many Broadway greats including Bob Fosse (perhaps best known for Chorus Line) and his dancer then-wife, Gwen Verdon, along with New York’s darling, Neil Simon, the playwright as well as many, many others. I remember the buzz about this show. I remember seeing the Playbill and my theater-crazed mother talking about it. Sweet Charity hit its mark because it painted a picture of Manhattan life that was as true to life as any show had in a long time. The script talks about well-known New York places. Central Park and the Manhattan Bridge and Williamsburg and Coney Island and the Fandango Ballroom, uh, well, almost all real places. Sweet Charity depicted a time when Times Square was a bit of a scary place and within a few neon-blinged blocks there were as many dance halls and peep shows as respectable Broadway theaters (yes, my parents took me there in spite of all this…)

Sweet Charity is the story of one of those “taxi dancers”, a sweet, dreamy and ultimately desperate girl who works in the sketchy dance halls of Manhattan. A sad premise, true, but the audience quickly sees that Charity, played by the stupendous Molly Bell, is no ordinary girl. She is a tour de force. She is a shooting star. She is a talent who we know in the end will succeed. Molly Bell playing the lead role of Charity Hope Valentine dances and belts out her Broadway rhythms with enough humor and verve to pull off anything. The hilarious cast of characters that Charity allows into her life add a note of Fellini-esque hysteria (Sweet Charity was originally based on a screenplay for a Fellini film). They also provide the best kind of entertainment. And that is what you will find at Center REP theater’s production of Sweet Charity. Perhaps some of the best entertainment this side of the Hudson River.

More than this I will not say about the plot of Sweet Charity which was faithfully recreated from the original by the stunning Center REP team of Timothy Near as Director and Jennifer Perry as Choreographer. Every line, every note, every dance move is simply sizzling from beginning to end. I’d guess that Center REP’s’ own New York-trained Artistic Director, Michael Butler, has much to do with this top-flight production. As, of course, does Molly Bell, an actor who takes the character of an ever-optimistic, if sometimes naive, dance hall girl and makes her wholesome and funny and absolutely loveable to suburban audiences.

In much the same way that the original Broadway production of Sweet Charity said something about New York City in the 60s, the success of this production of Sweet Charity says something about the future of theater at Center REP. For a musical production of this magnitude to succeed in this time, or maybe in any, it must deliver laughs and ahhhhs and every emotion in between. Center REP has succeeded at this and we look forward to more.

If Their New York Friends Could See Them Now!