‘Sweet Charity’ revives jazz era, features elaborate designs


Allie Goulding/The Daily Northwestern

Musicians rehearse a piece from the upcoming musical “Sweet Charity.” The mainstage production, which opens in the Ethel M. Barber Theatre on Friday night, features the largest student orchestra ever found in the venue.

Yvonne Kim, Assistant Campus Editor


With the largest student orchestra in the history of the Ethel M. Barber Theatre, an LED-lined set design and 1960s-inspired dance numbers, “Sweet Charity” is bringing a hybrid of jazz and classic musical theatre to the Northwestern mainstage.

Directed and choreographed by Tommy Rapley, the adaptation of Bob Fosse’s 1966 musical opens Friday as the University’s second mainstage production this fall.

Rapley, who said his career has largely been influenced by Fosse’s dance routines, described “Sweet Charity” as an opportunity to tackle a piece by one of his heroes.

“The score is definitely incredibly influenced by jazz music, but it still … lives in the world of musical theater,” he said. “My treatment of it as a director has been about trying to lift out the things that I think are relevant and interesting.”

The play follows its female protagonist, Charity Valentine, as she navigates relationships with men while working at a dance club in 1960s New York City.

Though seemingly naive, Valentine is eternally optimistic and an exciting character to portray, lead actress Jessie Jennison said.  

“Every time I work on her, I think I understand her a little bit better,” the Communication senior said. “It’s been a welcome challenge to try to balance the show being really fun and enjoyable and upbeat but also having an emotional arc and having the audience … invest in caring about this character.”

Jennison said the musical has been a dynamic experience both because of the character she plays, and also because of the technical aspects of the play itself, including the musical compositions that accompany the principal storyline.

“Jazz music can do a lot of things,” she said. “It can be really cool and really sexy jazz music, which this play definitely has, but then it can be like weird and quirky and zany, which I think my character is … It doesn’t feel like a modern-day musical because of the sound of the music and the big band score of the show.”

The production features an orchestra of 16 students. It also contains a variety of dance arrangements, which Rapley described as a “great little martini of movement” combining classical ballet and Fosse-esque jazz.

Communication senior Eric Peters, who plays Valentine’s primary love interest, said it was a new and interesting experience for him to perform in a Fosse-inspired musical.

“(It’s) a slightly different show from a lot of the things we’ve done here recently in that it’s a huge dance show,” he said. “Northwestern is not a huge musical theatre dance school … In terms of the score, it’s more of a classic musical than a lot of the things that I’ve done here.”

Peters added that the overarching 1960s-inspired design is “incredible,” and helps evoke the era and world in which the musical is set.

The light design of the production is especially rich, Rapley said, featuring a glowing back wall, individual twinkling bulbs and lights that glow from underneath the stage.

“It is a grand and beautiful set,” Rapley said. “Between the collaboration of set and light, we’re able to get a lot of spectacle in the room, just visual spectacle … The show is built very cinematically.”

Jennison said the show has been a great learning experience, both in helping her become more spontaneous on stage and in witnessing her character’s evolution, as she opens up to love and novel experiences.

“The most human moments on stage come from people reacting in the moment and not having planned what they’re going to do. Which is scarier and harder to do, but makes the play more interesting to watch for everybody,” she said. “The show has a little bit of something for everybody … It’s everything you would expect out of a big musical.”

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