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Broadway Reviews

Sweet Charity

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 4, 2005

Sweet Charity Book by Neil Simon. Music by Cy Coleman. Lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Based on an original screenplay by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Choreography by Wayne Cilento. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Sound design by Peter Hylenski. Hair design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Orchestrations by Don Sebesky. Music Director Don York. Additional musical and vocal arrangements by Michael Rafter. Additional dance arrangements by Jim Abbott. Music Coordinator John Miller. Starring Christina Applegate, Dennis O'Hare, Janine LaManna, Kyra Da Costa. With Ernie Sabella, Shannon Lewis, Rhett George, and Paul Schoeffler. Timothy Edward Smith, Corinne McFadden, Todd Anderson, Alexis Carra, Joyce Chittick, Tim Craskey, Dylis Croman, Anika Ellis, Bob Gaynor, Tyler Hanes, Manuel I. Herrera, Kisha Howard, Mylinda Hull, Reginald Holden Jennings, Amy Nicole Krawcek, Marielys Molina, Seth Stewart.
Theatre: Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Audience: Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tuesday at 8 pm, Wednesday at 2 pm, Thursday and Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm and 8 pm, Sunday at 2 pm and 7 pm
Ticket price: $101 and $56
Tickets: Telecharge

If you're being taken along for a ride in a Broadway star vehicle, there'd better be at least one thing onstage that you can't take your eyes from. The revival of Sweet Charity certainly has that: The Foot.

The appendage that launched a thousand articles has finally made its debut at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, where the revival of the Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields-Neil Simon musical has finally opened after a tryout that can be charitably described as torturous. After all the breaking and healing, the departure of two co-stars, closings and re-openings, and the process of rehabilitation, The Foot's holding up just fine. Just try to find in any of the show's myriad dance numbers even one moment when it looks as if The Foot fell afoul of that now legendary lamppost during the pre-Broadway run in Chicago. The Foot moves well and looks as healthy as can be.

The production it's in, though, is another matter.

Sweet Charity, despite a bevy of classic Coleman-Fields tunes (including the now-standard working girl's come-on, "Big Spender"), has never been a classic show. It's known primarily for being a star show to end all star shows, not just for its peerless original leading lady Gwen Verdon - who starred as Charity Hope Valentine, the dance hall hostess with a hopeful heart of gold - but also her husband, Bob Fosse, whose direction and choreography of the original 1966 production made equally earth-shattering (and convention-shattering) contributions.

Here, the direction is by Walter Bobbie, who's best known for his Tony-winning direction of the smash Chicago revival, and the choreography is by Wayne Cilento, who's best known for appearing in the original production of A Chorus Line. Both men are, perhaps, at the top of their game here: Bobbie provides fluid and generally attractive staging; Cilento's dances, unlike those he devised for Aida and Wicked, derive some energy from their surroundings and even provide a bit of their own.

Neither man, however, is a Fosse-level theatrical alchemist, so no seamless union of direction and dance is achieved. Cilento's "Big Spender," daring to ditch Fosse's bar-centered version, is unfocused and unexciting. And the bumps, grinds, and angular definition of Cilento's "Rich Man's Frug" don't define the witty, ritzy élan of a swanky nightclub's upper-crust patrons as much as they recall Fosse's much nimbler ability to do so. That "Rich Man's Frug" was preserved in the 1969 film, the 1986 Broadway revival, and the 1999 stage retrospective Fosse also doesn't help Cilento's work stand freshly apart.

But if Fosse's work is easily sampled, great star performances are more difficult to conjure. Despite determination that redefines the meaning of the word for today's absence-prone pseudo-divas, this production's Charity, Christina Applegate (owner of The Foot), isn't completely up to the task. Nor is she, it must be noted, entirely beneath the challenge - compared to other, bigger names who've landed on Broadway this season (Peter Krause and Denzel Washington come instantly to mind), she acquits herself more than admirably.

Her acting is rock-solid, just right for a girl so desperate to be loved, she'll fall into a relationship at the drop of a hat (or a dime at the Fandango Ballroom dance hall). Her singing is, if not Broadway big, firm and accurate. Her dancing, while not at the level of stage Charitys Verdon or Debbie Allen or film Charity Shirley MacLaine, is well-suited by Cilento's choreography. More importantly, Applegate also makes real sense of a roundabout dramatic arc that takes Charity from one terrible match-up with a mooching money-thief to an aborted one-night stand with Italian film star Vittorio Vidal (Paul Schoeffler) and eventually a potential long-term relationship with the perpetually nervous and romantically inexperienced Oscar Lindquist (Denis O'Hare).

But if Applegate has no problems carrying the show's material, she still has trouble carrying the show. What Sweet Charity needs above all is a luminescent talent who can glue the great Coleman-Fields songs and Simon's uneven, fragmented episodes of a book framework into a full show. Applegate never quite succeeds: Her hat-and-cane strutting of the jubilant "If My Friends Could See Me Now" in Vittorio's lavish hotel room stops the show in the most workmanlike way imaginable; her dance hall cohorts (played by Janine LaManna and Kyra Da Costa) kick up their heels in "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" with the effusive spirit of embracing the impossible dream more infectiously than she does; and she disappears into the wings during Charity's "I'm finally in love" second-act showpiece, "I'm a Brass Band," letting the dancing corps steal the spotlight no true star would ever relinquish.

Applegate undoubtedly has her good moments: She's hilarious when trapped in Vittorio's closet, and proves that her years on TV's Married... With Children weren't wasted, but invaluable training. And she's thoroughly, heartbreakingly invested in Charity's aching "Where Am I Going?" and the live-another-day finale. But the best Charitys must reconcile all of the role's difficult and often contradictory requirements, and Applegate's not there yet. If she continues her training, though, she'll make a killer Charity in another decade or so.

As for all the rest, O'Hare is endearingly funny as the neurotic Oscar, and delivers his songs (even the unnecessarily interpolated "A Good Impression") with characterful relish; LaManna and Da Costa provide a good dash of hard-edged spice to strengthen the show's seamier side; and Schoeffler scores mightily with his two-scene role and makes the lovely "Too Many Tomorrows" a stirring and hilarious highlight. Ernie Sabella's brusqueness as dance hall manager Herman is overly affected, and Rhett George is almost unwatchable as a new-age religion leader in the sense-deprived and funked-up reconception of the formerly show-stopping "The Rhythm of Life."

The physical production, if not stellar, is more than adequate: Scott Pask's scenic designs are a colorful mélange of styles ranging from the two-dimensional to the forced perspective, from the psychedelic to the disco inferno; William Ivey Long has costumed the actors to slinky perfection; the lighting is up to designer Brian MacDevitt's usual high standards. And musical director Don York leads an orchestra that sounds so great, you can't help but wish it were playing Ralph Burns's matchless original orchestrations instead of Don Sebesky's anemic imitations.

Even so, they're playing one of the musical theatre's very best scores, one that's so conducive to toe-tapping that Applegate's ankle can't have been the first foot-related casualty in the show's history. It's just a shame that the joy of hearing such wonderful songs performed live isn't matched by a top-notch production and an ideally equipped star. Still, if you can't have everything, you have to keep hoping for the best; that's the message Charity, Applegate, and audiences alike will take away from this almost-but-not-quite-there revival.

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