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Francis Wilson Playhouse presents 'Sweet Charity'

CLEARWATER — Big spenders nowadays would probably scoff at the idea of paying 10 cents for a whirl around a ballroom with a woman, preferring pole dancers over taxi dancers.

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But when Neil Simon was adapting Federico Fellini's 1957 Italian film Nights of Cabiria for the American stage, there were still a few dime-a-dance halls left.

His beloved character in Sweet Charity — now playing at the Francis Wilson Playhouse — was a hostess at one of them, the fictional Fandango Ballroom in New York City.

Charity Hope Valentine endures agonizing humiliation trying find a husband but remains surprisingly resilient in the process.

Perhaps her message of hope is what has made this musical so popular more than 40 years after it was first produced at the Palace Theatre on Broadway.

"The biggest draw is her likability,'' said director James Grenelle, 28. "(The audience) really wants her to be happy.''

With tunes like Big Spender and If My Friends Could See Me Now by Cy Coleman and choreography by Bob Fosse, it played for 608 performances on Broadway at the Palace Theatre and starred Gwen Verdon, John McMartin, Helen Gallagher and Thelma Oliver.

It was revived on Broadway several times, the last time in 2005.

The local cast includes Capria Pichette, 24, as Charity and Craig Ruska, 29, as Oscar Lindquist, the shy accountant and Charity's love interest.

Just days before the show opened on Thursday, Joanne Mangru, 32, who was scheduled to play Charity's friend Helene, was rear-ended in a car accident and had to temporarily drop out of the show. She was replaced by fellow cast member Lauren Clark, 27, who works at the St. Petersburg Times as an editorial assistant in the sports department. A frug dancer in the show, she had to quickly learn more than 50 new lines.

Already several dates at the 182-seat theater are sold out and new ones have been added to meet demand.

"It's a very popular show, very well-known,'' Grenelle said. "There are so many recognizable songs.''

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

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Spend a little time with Charity

Sweet Charity is playing at the Francis Wilson Playhouse through March 30 with evening and matinee performances. Tickets are $25. The theater is at 302 Seminole St., Clearwater. For information, call the box office at (727) 446-1360.

Francis Wilson Playhouse presents 'Sweet Charity' 03/13/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2008 5:15pm]
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