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Theater review: 'Sweet Charity' dances her way into your heart

"Sweet Charity" is about a dance hall hostess with a heart of gold who just wants to be loved. The production that opened Thursday night at the Underground has a leading lady who wins your heart plus a whole bunch of crowd pleasing dance numbers.

As Charity Hope Valentine, Hayley Rosenthal doubles down on the cuteness, starting with her soliloquy and hitting her stride in "If My Friends Could See Me Now." Exceeding the adorability quotient for her character, Rosenthal's Charity becomes the first I have seen to truly deserve being called "sweet."

Director-choreographer Amber Burns goes vertical rather than horizontal on "Big Spender," which might be the show's most famous number, but her minimalist approach in "Charity's Soliloquy" is even more compelling.

"Rich Man's Frug," with everybody in basic black, is a dance epic in three parts. The cast has ample opportunity to get their yeah-yeah's out in the dancing highlight of the evening.

Being that close to that many dancers doing everything they are doing is an absolute treat for the audience. Down front, you feel like you are on stage with them.

After intermission, there are a couple of more show-stopping dance numbers: "The Rhythm of Life" with big Gabe Mayfield as Daddy Brubeck presiding over his counter-culture congregation, and "I Love to Cry at Weddings," with its falsetto duet and allemande lefts.

Charity's wing women, Nicole Johnson as Nickie and Jacqline Wright as Helene, are a pair of very strong vocalists who deliver on both the defiant "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" with Rosenthal and their bittersweet "Baby, Dream Your Dream" duet.

The biggest surprises of the night were not only that Italian heartthrob Vittorio Vidal was kind-hearted, but that Derek Bromme's voice was even better than his Fabio-like hair for making the ladies in the audience swoon.

Matias Valero's Oscar does not show up until the final scene, but he explodes on stage in an epic meltdown that got laughs, even when the lights went out. Has Charity finally found love in an elevator?

Is her middle name Hope?

The multi-level set of mix-n-match geometric shapes has a definite Sixties vibe. The cast is on the other side of 30 from where the characters should be, but Rosenthal and the rest of the cast make their youth work for them.

There are a few sound problems, and this musical has the lamest title song ever, but the title character and all that dancing overwhelm such complaints.

The other key moment for Rosenthal is when her facade gets stripped away and we are down to her core. It is a brief moment, but Rosenthal makes the sharp pain of it hit home hard before she rebuilds her happy facade.

That moment reveals that ultimately the big Cy Coleman dance numbers and the sharp tongued Neil Simon humor of the book serve to gloss over the fact that "Sweet Charity" sits in judgment of the sexual revolution of the Sixties.

In the end, Charity, sweet Charity, it is not the lie. It is the life.

If you go:

What: "Sweet Charity"

Where: The Underground, 506 W. Michigan St.

When: 7:30 Thursday-Saturday through May 5

Tickets: $20 adults, $18 students at www.duluthplayhouse.org

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