nytheatre.com review by David Pumo
May 19, 2005
There are reasons to recommend the newest Broadway revival of Sweet Charity, starring Christina Applegate, directed by Walter Bobbie, with choreography by Wayne Cilento. The biggest reason is Applegate’s vibrant and captivating performance in the title role of Charity Hope Valentine. Despite some strong supporting characters and group musical numbers, it is largely up to Applegate to carry the show. This is no light task. The actress, best known for her TV work and supporting roles in a few films, steps into shoes that have been filled by some of the best and most beloved musical stars, including most notably both Gwen Verdon and Debbie Allen on Broadway and Shirley MacLaine in the film—all three of those productions directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Applegate’s comic talent and charming vulnerability keep the audience rooting for her from beginning to end. Even Applegate fans (and I am an Applegate fan) will be surprised to see her take control of the stage and fill the theatre. She is working hard here for sure, having recently recovered from a now-infamous broken ankle. She is obviously putting all of her heart and soul into the role. It’s refreshing to see a performer work that hard for something she wants so badly, and the payoff is thoroughly delightful.
But there are problems here too. Some of them are particular to this production, but many are built in. The book by Neil Simon, based on a Fellini movie, is funny in many places, and even moving in a few. But the story itself—the whole idea of the show—is as strange today as it was when the show first opened. It’s the mid-sixties, New York City. Charity, our struggling heroine with big dreams, is working as a dancehall girl—someone whom men pay to dance with them. Did such a thing really exist in New York City in the sixties? Did such a thing ever really exist? After her fiance robs and abandons her in the first scene, Charity sets out to get her life back in order. Along the way she spends a memorable evening with a famous Italian movies star, and eventually meets Oscar (Denis O’Hare), a neurotic accountant, while trapped with him in an elevator. She falls for him and the settled domestic life he represents. But how will he react when he finds out about her “sordid” life? It’s all kind of silly and anachronistic. The setup, the character of Oscar, even the other dancehall girls who dream of being receptionists and hatcheck girls (hatcheck girls, in the sixties?) seem more suited for a musical set in the forties.
The score by Cy Coleman, with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, is filled with classics, though even these are somewhat of a mixed bag with many seeming to belong to another era. "Big Spender" takes us inside the world of the dancehall and the dancehall girls. Bobbie and Cilento have re-imagined this number in a way that’s too upbeat, losing a lot of the intention that made it such a classic. The number here is fun, colorful, even sexy. But Fosse’s girls, with their mechanical flirting and hardcore dance moves, couldn’t hide their utter boredom and contempt for their clients, which was much more interesting. In "Rich Man’s Frug," Charity has managed to get into an upscale dance club with the Italian movie star (Paul Schoeffler). Cilento sticks closer to the original here, borrowing much of Fosse’s quintessential choreography (it would be foolish not to) to recreate the haute elegance and avant-garde snobbery of the wealthy club set. It’s one of the strongest dance numbers, with pretentious, pop-colorful sets by Scott Pask and fun period costumes by William Ivey Long.
Back at the movie star’s home, Applegate shows off her great talent as well as a bit of her weakness with another crowd pleaser, "If My Friends Could See Me Now." As a dancer, she’s no Verdon, Allen, or MacLaine. But her choreographed slapstick is perfect, her singing is as good as any of her predecessors', and she more than pulls off this musical solo, getting the strongest audience cheers of the evening.
"There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This," in which Charity and her co-workers Nickie and Helene imagine better lives for themselves, is less than the big full-out dance trio it should be. It almost looks as though the choreography has been taken down a notch to accommodate Applegate. Another well-known number, "The Rhythm Of Life" (the Sammy Davis number in the movie), takes place at a hip new church service, which Oscar has taken Charity on their first date. It’s an underwhelming period piece, taking us into a world somewhere between beatniks and hippies. I never understood what this side trip to a fly-by-night religious group meeting has to do with the rest of the show. The new musical arrangement here, with more of a funk and soul feel, is much stronger and more in synch with the time and place than the usual arrangement of this number, which never made sense to me. Another big number, "I’m a Brass Band," is cute and grand, but no number from the show seems more out of place in a sixties musical than this one, which feels straight out of The Music Man.
O’Hare is funny, as you would expect, but a little over-the-top throughout. The scene in the elevator is played like sketch comedy, milked for every laugh with little room to establish any real character. Janine LaManna and Kyra Da Costa as Nickie and Helene do a good job supporting Applegate, though they never quite become fully formed characters on their own. Ernie Sabella is brash and funny as the cranky club owner who loves to cry at weddings, and Rhett George gets to flash his strong voice and smooth moves as Daddy, the "Rhythm of Life" preacher.
Pask’s sets work great throughout, from the pop period design of the flats to the creative mechanics of the elevator, a Ferris wheel, and the movie star's opulent apartment with a couch that grows and grows. Long’s costumes paint a bright and festive picture, though I would have loved to see Applegate in something besides the same red dress for the entire show.
Despite its weaknesses, Charity is a fun evening; easy on the eyes with many songs you’ll look forward to. More than anything, it is a great vehicle for Applegate to courageously take on, an opportunity to see an unexpected side of this shining star. And shine she does, with every bone—broken or otherwise—in her body.