Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Sweet Charity
Hillbarn Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of When the Rain Stops Falling

Monique Hafen
Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography
Heartbeats quicken and hum-alongs multiply as the boldly brass and percussion-packed overture reminds its audience that this Cy Coleman musical contains some of his best-loved, most-sung numbers. More than just a few people begin singing under their breath the well-known lyrics of Dorothy Fields that are now so much a part of the Great American Songbook—songs like "Big Spender" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now." While the story of Neil Simon's book may not be known by all, the 1968 Tony-nominated musical Sweet Charity begins to feel very familiar with its tale of a young dance hall hostess who looks for love in all the wrong places and in the process instead finds out that she is a strong, independent woman. With a cast of twenty-plus who know how to dance and to sell a story full of heart and laughs, Hillbarn Theatre presents a Sweet Charity whose title character rarely leaves the stage and thoroughly steals the show.

With a name like Charity Hope Valentine, is there any wonder that this is a sweet girl who is an easy pushover for almost any guy who bats his big eyes while dancing with her at the Fan-Dango Ballroom? As one of her co-hostesses tells her, "You run your heart like a hotel, pushing guys in and out." After her latest dumping by a guy (literally in a lake, this time) who also makes off with her pocketbook, she sings in "Charity's Soliloquy," "Now hear this ... This big fat heart ain't gonna be torn apart ever, ever again!" Somehow, we just know this is not the case.

Monique Hafen shines as Charity with a cheery, Bronx-laced singing voice that at times sounds more like a little girl's than a call girl's, but she especially glistens and sparkles as Charity whenever she turns on her charm, her comedy, and her constant calisthenics. There is something always in motion for this Charity, be it her long legs gyrating from her red mini-dress; her arms flailing like windmills; or her flashing, toothy smile accented by eyes that dart in constant back-and-forth dance.

When she is unexpectedly in the apartment of famous movie star Vittorio Vidal (the rich-voiced, debonair Adam Flowers) she can no longer contain herself as she sings and high steps with cane and high hat over the entire room and its furniture, "If My Friends Could See Me Now." Stuck minutes later in a closet because the star's girlfriend has paid a surprise visit (Sara Ris as starlet Ursula March), Charity is a hoot to watch as she eavesdrops, reacts with over-sized expressions to the bedroom goings-on, and tries to hide smoke from her lit cigarette in a hanging coat bag. The talented moves and antics of Monique Hafen's Charity never take even a minute's recess during the nearly three-hour production, but neither does her ability to win our hearts with her spunk and her spirit.

Charity is joined at the Fan-Dango by fellow dance hostesses and pals Nickie (a Southern-drawling Alicia Gangi) and Helene (Latin and hot-blooded by Caitlin O'Leary). Together, the three explode in strong voice and dynamic dance rhythms in "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This." Nickie dreams of being a receptionist ("with office parties, water coolers, and coffee breaks"); Helene, of a career as a hat check girl ("Take your hat ... your coat ... your vest ... your pants!); and Charity, of "I'll figure it out later." Nickie and Helene return later in the show for a duo "Baby, Dream Your Dream" with visions of a suburban house and the PTA, a dream where "life will be frozen peaches and cream."

Alex Hsu has taken the Bob Fosse conceived choreography of Sweet Charity and absolutely whipped this large cast into a dancing dynamo. Every time there is stepping and blocking on the set, the musical is at its best. The fun begins with a line-up of a dozen dance girls in 1960s mod-and-mini dress, assuming shifting, erotic poses that intermittently freeze as they sing of "fun, laughs, good times" in "Big Spender." A larger group of dancers in '60s-sophisticate black and white slink across stage with torsos bent backward in parallel, slightly shaking heads and moving in Fosse-type blocks in the twice-encored "Rich Man's Frug." Other numbers work equally well, with the only one falling flat being the hippie-fied, "religious" number, "The Rhythm of Life" in which the head hippie "Daddy Brubeck" (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias) and his congregation of tie-dyed, psychedelic-clad worshippers miss impressing with either song or dance.

Charity's unlucky string of losers appears to take a turn for the better when she finds herself stuck in a YMCA elevator with tall, lanky Oscar. His over-the-top panic attack gives Charity a chance to show her empathy and common sense while he clamors up the walls with limbs grasping at air, twists and jerks like a rubber-band with legs, and cries with vocal pleas in ranges running several octaves. David Blackburn finds a hundred ways to demonstrate Oscar's five or so minutes of hysteria, finally calmed by singing in duet with Charity, "I'm the Bravest Individual." Once the elevator finally moves and the door opens, their locked eyes prove that hope springs eternal in her, in him, and in us that this could be the guy for Charity ... finally. But as nuptials near for the two lovebirds, the rousing, rambunctious, full cast "I Love to Cry at Weddings" will unfortunately take on a double meaning before the vows are said.

Much of this production's musical success is due to music director Rick Reynolds and his orchestra of eleven. Cy Coleman's score especially requires outstanding brass and percussion; in this case, the trumpets soar into upper heights with nary a miss, and Russ Gold's percussion talents star time and again as a duet partner to singers on stage (as in "Big Spender" where he and they echo back and forth).

Lighting also plays a huge role, with David Gotlieb's flashing marquees as well as groovy shadows and colors providing the nightlife and 1960s backdrops on Danielle Santana-Combs' simple but effective set design. Hair (Dee Morrissey) and costumes (Valerie Emmi) are appropriately outrageous in color and design to remind us of the leftover beatnik looks, the onslaught of hippie wear, and the prevalence of primary color, mod styles that decorated the 1960s.

Hillbarn Theatre ends its 75th anniversary season in full style with a Charity to relish and remember and a series of big dance numbers that impress and invigorate. The result is a fully rewarding Sweet Charity that will send audience members into the lobby more sure than ever to sign up for the next season of Hillbarn delights.

Hillbarn Theatre continues its season-ending Sweet Charity through May 29, 2016, at 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-349-6411.