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Highly Recommended

As the performance begins, the big, brassy chords of “Hey, Big Spender” reverberate throughout the Lincolnshire arena theatre, immediately setting the mood for this iconic, essentially optimistic musical from the mid-sixties. The overture, played with sharp precision and passion by conductor Patti Garwood, and her talented eight-member pit orchestra, bursts through the darkness, creating a mood and building the excitement and anticipation for the show that’s to come. Although set in the swinging sixties, this is a particularly timely story about a strong, feisty young woman who, despite how often life dumps on her, manages to find the positive in every situation and rise above it to go on.

Between his 1965 comedy classic, “The Odd Couple” and 1968’s “Plaza Suite,” the late, prolific American playwright Neil Simon wrote the book for this, his second musical. The show was based upon Federico Fellini’s film, “Nights of Cabiria,” the story of an Italian hooker with a heart of gold. When adapting the story into a Broadway musical, Simon attempted to sanitize the leading character, changing the title role of Charity Hope Valentine into a Times Square taxi dancer at the Fandango Ballroom. The show’s brilliant score, with songs that have become pop standards, was written by Cy Coleman, with lyrics by Dorothy Field. But more importantly, this musical is one of several shows closely identified with iconic director and choreographer, Bob Fosse.

The musical premiered in 1966 and one of its greatest distinctions was the late, great Mr. Fosse’s touch. It was conceived, directed and choreographed by the musical master. For his inventive, stylized dance moves, Fosse won the Tony Award. The original production also starred his talented, triple-threat wife, Gwen Verdon. Three years later, Bob Fosse would direct and choreograph an all-star film version of the musical that featured Shirley MacLaine in the title role. The stage musical played over 600 performances on Broadway and was later revived in 1986, starring Debbie Allen and Bebe Neuwirth. Another Broadway revival opened in 2005, this time starring Christina Applegate; and, in 2016, Sutton Foster starred in an Off-Broadway production.

The Marriott’s decision to bring back this much-loved musical was an excellent choice. For contemporary audiences, the show is an entertaining flashback to one of the most colorful, memorable periods in Broadway history; it also resonates today because it promotes many of the social issues promoted in the MeToo movement. Theatergoers of a certain age, who fondly recall the swinging 60’s, will also enjoy the production for the flood of nostalgia it provides. With vigor and verve, the show delivers superb musical direction by Ryan T. Nelson, sporting such familiar songs as “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” “Baby Dream Your Dream,” “I’m a Brass Band” and the popular, recognizable “Big Spender.” And, like the original Broadway production, this version is both directed and choreographed by Chicago’s own version of the gifted Renaissance man, Alex Sanchez. Having been a part of the Broadway cast of “Fosse,” the experience provided an opportunity for Sanchez to work closely with Gwen Verdon. Thus, Mr. Sanchez was faithfully able to recreate the show’s stylized dance numbers with heart and humor, while still putting his own spin on each piece. In fact, each musical number is a complete show, in itself.

The production is staged in-the-round upon Scott Davis’ flexible scenic design. The set is dominated by a dozen TV screens, surrounding the playing area and suspended high above all the action. Jesse Klug’s lighting and, especially, Anthony Churchill’s psychedelic video design, echoed in Mieka van der Ploeg’s period costumes, features a wonderland of pulsating, colorful patterns and NYC locales that bring to mind the raucous whimsy of 60’s television shows, such as “Laugh-In.”

Talented Broadway actress Ann Horak (“Chicago,” “White Christmas”) takes on the marathon role of Charity. The character requires a certain talent and stamina because Charity is hardly ever offstage. It’s a part that’s been played by a veritable who’s-who list of accomplished musical theatre actresses, but this charming, amiable actress takes hold of this lovable protagonist with both hands and makes the character all her own. With confidence and a determination to create a contemporary-feeling Charity, Ms. Horak is sweet-natured and sympathetic in her portrayal. This actress can act, sing and dance with the best of them and she captures the hearts of everyone watching her.

Alex Goodrich, one of Chicago’s finest comic actors, and a talented singer/dancer, as well, is stellar as Oscar, Charity’s newest heartthrob. The Jeff Award-winning Mr. Goodrich, who’s portrayed such memorable characters as Buddy, in “ELF, the Musical” and Georg in “She Loves Me,” is dead-on perfect as the nerdy, but lovably sincere young man who finds his love while stuck in an elevator. This scene is so hilarious, while being completely controlled, is one of the comic highlights of this production. Alex Goodrich delivers a brilliant tour de force performance in these few moments, as well as throughout the musical, that’s a textbook lesson in comic acting.

The supporting cast is remarkable. Broadway’s original Aladdin, Adam Jacobs, plays Italian movie star, Vittorio Vidal, with suave sophistication. Kenny Ingram, who began his professional career at the Marriott in “A Chorus Line,” returns from Broadway to the Lincolnshire stage as Daddy Brubeck, leading the ensemble through the infectious, toe-tapping “Rhythm of Life.” Terry Hamilton, a familiar face at the Marriott, plays Herman, the blustering manager of the dancehall.

This show relies heavily upon its ensemble, which features a chorus of gifted singer/dancers who are as professional and polished as as any you’re likely to see on Broadway. They include Dani Spieler and Natonia Monet as Charity’s Fandango buddies, Nickie and Helene, both making their Marriott debuts. The multitalented Liam Quealy, a recent standout in the Marriott’s “Newsies,” among many other shows, plays a multitude of roles in this production. In addition, he’s also unbelievably the show’s Assistant Stage Manager. The rest of the accomplished ensemble include Alexandra Palkovic, Joe Bigelow, Elyse Collier, Lexis Danca, Alex Dorf, Alejandro Fonseca, Eben K. Logan, Hanah Rose Nardone, Adam Rogers, Alex Smith and the incomparable Laura Savage. Their stylized, three-part “Rich Man’s Frug” absolutely brings down the house.

While the book for this sweet musical has a few problems, most obvious is the unresolved ending for Charity’s search for love, Marriott’s production is first-rate. Expertly directed and choreographed with class and grooviness by Alex Sanchez, accompanied by Patti Garwood’s terrific orchestra and fine-tuned by Ryan T. Nelson’s precise musical direction, this is a show that will be long remembered. It’s performed with heart and soul by a gifted cast, and brings the vibe of the 60’s into the twenty-first century. In its optimistic message of never saying never, this musical offers a rousing, flashy, finger-snapping, soulful “Rhythm of Life.”