Chekhov and Simon

Two small theaters take on masterful playwrights, with varying degrees of success

Sweet Charity is a musical with a spectacular pedigree.

It has a book by Neil Simon (The Odd Couple, Barefoot in the Park), music by Cy Coleman ("The Best Is Yet to Come") and lyrics by Dorothy Fields ("The Way You Look Tonight"). It was directed and choreographed on Broadway in 1966 by Bob Fosse (Chicago, Pippin) as a vehicle for Gwen Verdon (Can-Can, Damn Yankees), and the film version starred Shirley MacLaine.

With so much going for it, you really want to like it. You look forward to each of those classic songs: "Big Spender," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "I'm a Brass Band." You laugh at the hilarious parts, sit patiently through the slow parts and quietly wonder if a plot is going to emerge.

Sweet Charity, like its title character, is lovable, full of heart and kind of a mess.

The production of Sweet Charity now being staged by the daVinci Players at Studio Connections is equally erratic. Standout performances and enthusiastic dancing mix with a few false notes (literal and metaphorical) to form a whole that, while far from perfect, is passionate and easy to love.

The show follows Charity Hope Valentine, a dance-hall hostess, as she sails with wide-eyed optimism through a series of misbegotten romances with a handsome mooch, a movie star and a neurotic "nice guy."

Charity is on stage for most of the show and sings much of the score, so it is fortunate that she is performed by Maria Alburtus, who is a charismatic delight. With a strong, clear singing voice, an appealing stage presence and boundless energy, she brings emotional layers to Charity's character without overcomplicating her.

A whirlwind of comic supporting characters are set in motion by choreographer La Tosha Evans. They dance across a striking black-and-white set, designed by Teresa Vasquez, Samantha Cormier and Steve Wood.

Brian Scott Hale is able to depict both vulnerability and over-the-top hysteria as Charity's fiancé, Oscar. Jacob Brown captures the suave charisma of movie heartthrob Vidal Vittorio. Maria Gallardo and Vasquez, as Charity's dance-hall friends, both perform strongly, making me wish they were given more developed characters to work with. One surprising standout is Cormier, who plays only small roles but manages to turn them into gems of physical acting.

Sweet Charity is the directorial debut of Brian Edward Levario, and he deserves credit for taking on such a sizable first project. The production's greatest weakness is sluggish timing, both between scenes and in the delivery of Simon's zippy dialogue, but Levario has coaxed consistently enthusiastic performances from his cast. Their buoyant energy—like the title character's—keeps the show moving blithely forward.

One Acts of Love, the premiere production at the new Comedy Playhouse, is built on a pedigree of a different sort. True, two of the evening's three short plays are by the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov (Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard). But the name that hovers more brightly over this production is Top Hat Theatre Club.

Top Hat is a small but beloved theater institution that has been in flux since losing its venue last fall. The Comedy Playhouse is not a resurrection of Top Hat so much as a reincarnation: different body, same spirit. Director Bruce Bieszki says he not only wanted to keep the spirit of Top Hat alive, but to keep together its family of performers.

His new theater, in a lovingly converted retail space on First Avenue near Prince Road, is surprisingly spacious inside, but with only 33 seats, it still feels intimate.

As he takes the stage to open the evening's proceedings, it feels like a family affair, with Bieszki as the wise-cracking uncle. He reels off jokes that induced groans even when they were new, but delivers them with the flair of a born performer.

Bieszki refers to his theater's fare as "light comedy," and he is exactly right. The evening's three one-acts are charming, old-fashioned and light-hearted. And what the performances may lack in professional polish, they make up in good will from the audience.

Chekhov (1860-1904) notably referred to his plays as comedies. Those who have sat through The Seagull or Three Sisters might disagree, but these two short works, The Bear and The Proposal, are made of much lighter stuff.

In The Bear, a grieving widow (Denise Blum) has shut herself off from the world, vowing to prove her superiority over her philandering husband by remaining faithful until her own death—much to the dismay of her long-suffering maid (Lois Lederman). This funereal sanctuary is disturbed by the arrival of one of the late husband's creditors (Paul Hammack), and romantic entanglements ensue.

The Proposal is more overtly romantic. The neurotic hypochondriac Lomov (John McRostie) has come to ask Chubukov (Frank Solis) for the hand of his daughter, Natalia (Blum). He is smitten, and she is willing, but whenever the two are alone together, they bicker.

Who Kissed Barbara?, the evening's final piece, was written by Franz and Lillian Rickaby in 1921. Franz Rickaby is best known (if at all) as a collector of folk music from the American Midwest. Who Kissed Barbara? has the helpless aristocrats and snappy banter of a P.G. Wodehouse story.

On the night before Katherine (Samantha Severson) is to be wed, her dear friend Barbara (Cristin Phibbs) is kissed by a mystery man in a dark room. Was it Katherine's fiancé, Horace (Alex Greengaard)? The peppermint-stealing butler, James (Drew Kallen)? Or did Katherine's brother (Hammack) make an early arrival?

Bieszki has clearly directed his troupe with comedy in mind, with varied success. While the quality of acting ranges from accomplished to amateur, the physical comedy—McRostie's nervous twitching, Kallen's precision heel-spinning—is a consistent hit, and every joke is milked for laughs. But, as the title says, what really drives this production is love—between the audience and the performers.

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