There’s gotta be something better than this,” sing the dance hall girls in “Sweet Charity,” but folks at Avery Fisher Hall for the star-drenched benefit performance of the 1966 musical would be inclined to demur. In an evening suffused with affection from both audience and performers for a show whose delights have perhaps never been more spectacularly displayed, a cast of “Charity” veterans and assorted guest stars dazzled the audience with the story of the not-quite-hooker who keeps losing her heart of gold.
Although the event, a fundraiser for the American Foundation for AIDS Research and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, was billed as a concert, it was in fact a fully staged performance, and then some — if only every musical on Broadway was as impeccably turned out as this one-night event. Composer Cy Coleman opened the show at the piano, to the first of the evening’s seeming innumerable bursts of heated applause. Narrator Whoopi Goldberg, in high deadpan mode, then introduced the first of the evening’s tag team of Charitys, Chita Rivera.
Rivera, a “Charity” veteran of both film (as Nickie) and stage, still has at her disposal the trademark physical mannerisms that original director and choreographer Bob Fosse used to define the character: hand on a hip thrust pugnaciously back, heels flipping skyward, hands flapping anxiously. So indeed did all five of the evening’s Charitys, although each brought her own distinctions.
The Charity of Debbie Allen, a Broadway vet of the role who was next up, boasted an impish, earthy charm, along with a dopey innocence that gave warmth to her shot at one of the show’s best-known songs, “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” Donna McKechnie added to the innocence a layer of her own, a robust wholesomeness that shined from her big, bright eyes.
Bebe Neuwirth, when she was not giving us tart morsels of her Tony-winning turn as Charity’s fellow dance hostess Nickie, doubled as Charity herself. And if there was any question left as to who would inherit the mantle of fabled Broadway stars in the mold of Rivera and the original Charity, Gwen Verdon, Neuwirth’s spectacularly lithe dancing in “I’m a Brass Band” and her way with a wisecrack dispelled any doubts.
Verdon herself stepped in for a brief bit that proved her comic chops are as ageless as the audience’s affection for her, and she was met with the kind of heartfelt ovation that reminds you how perfunctory they can seem. She also provided the musical staging, from Fosse’s original production, and the dancing in the big numbers — “Brass Band,” “Rich Man’s Frug” and “Rhythm of Life” — was as finely executed as anything on Broadway (perhaps not surprising, since it was executed by some of the street’s best). For all the period styles Fosse drew on in “Charity” — does anyone remember the frug anymore? — his work looks as fresh and electric as ever, and clearly continues to feed dancers’ inspiration.
As if a quintet of quintessential Charity Hope Valentines were not enough, the evening also provided a trio of nicely differentiated performances in the role of Oscar, Charity’s best shot at a happily-ever-after. First up was Jim Dale, making Oscar’s meeting with Charity in a broken elevator into an aria — both vocal and physical — of anxiety, with each crack of the voice and manic twitch a lesson in comic timing. “Ragtime’s” Brian Stokes Mitchell gave lessons of another sort, wooing Allen’s Charity with the show’s title tune and radiating romantic charisma. (The man could make a lamppost swoon.) And John McMartin, who created the role, concluded with a reprisal of his own gently nuanced performance.
Has Neil Simon’s book grown wittier with the years, or did is just seem so Monday night? Aside from the principals, a crackerjack supporting cast including Dom DeLuise, Charles Nelson Reilly, Chuck Cooper and Marisa Tomei virtually strip-mined each line of dialogue for the maximum of comic inflection. (Even Charity’s offhand remark about her friend being trapped in an elevator with “two German shepherds and a delivery boy” earned a uniquely enthusiastic laugh on this evening.)
But it was as a showcase for some of the American musical theater’s best and brightest that “Charity” made its strongest case. In addition to the array of Charitys and Oscars, Hinton Battle led a rousing congregation of hippies in “Rhythm of Life,” Robert Goulet stepped easily into the role of Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal, and Betty Buckley popped in for a last-minute cameo to lend Dom DeLuise some vocal support on “I Love to Cry at Weddings.”
The girls from “The Life” looked right at home draped across the bar that’s so memorably central to “Hey Big Spender,” and that show’s female stars, Pamela Isaacs and Lillias White, gave us the evening’s single sweetest piece of singing in their duet on “Baby Dream Your Dream.” As their voices mingled at the close and the audience erupted for the umpteenth time into a riot of applause, an evening of high points hit yet another peak.