For a show that arrives in New York saddled with a potentially crippling load of baggage — tepid reviews for its Minneapolis and Chicago tryouts; an injured star; an out-of-town closing notice, later retracted — “Sweet Charity” has a plucky spirit that won’t be denied, and that’s largely due to Christina Applegate. While the Broadway novice had musical purists clucking at the Great White Way’s colonization by TV stars before anyone had given her a chance, Applegate turns out to be sweet, sexy, vulnerable and giving, her unforced performance providing a booster shot of gusto and heart to help fill the voids of Walter Bobbie’s uneven production and Neil Simon’s eternally problematic book.
The former “Married … With Children” star is, of course, no Gwen Verdon (who is?), and she’s by no means the most gifted musical performer ever to grace a stage, but she’s no slouch. Recovering from a broken foot in remarkable time, Applegate may be guarded in her moves, favoring her good foot, but it’s not so apparent that anyone unaware of the history should notice. And she more than holds her own in dance numbers (given added support in ankle boots). Early reports that Applegate’s voice was paper thin also prove unduly harsh. She’s not a belter, but she carries a tune with confidence and high-wattage personality.
From its origins as Fellini’s film “Nights of Cabiria” — with the sublime Giulietta Masina as a clownish hooker — through its transformation into an American stage and screen vehicle in which turning tricks was semi-sanitized into taxi dancing, the story has hinged entirely on the aud’s emotional attachment to this bruised, open-hearted optimist who still believes in love despite being its serial casualty.
Just two weeks ago, with substitute lead Charlotte d’Amboise on while Applegate’s foot healed, the revival seemed terminally flat and lifeless, dampened by a pallid Charity whose romantic success or failure was hard to get too concerned about.
From the moment Applegate twirls around the Central Park lamppost that caused her injury, it’s clear she’s this production’s salvation. She nails the character with disarming sincerity and deft comic timing; the audience is with her from the start. Applegate personally persuaded producers Barry and Fran Weissler to reverse their decision to close in Boston, and her determination to go on commands admiration. This is a terrific vehicle for her, and she makes consistently good choices in the role.
Too bad not everything here hits that same level.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this revival is the absence anywhere in the Playbill of Bob Fosse’s name, especially since it’s in the remnants of the original choreographer-director’s unmistakable dance style that the show almost sizzles — notably in the tawdry erotic sales pitch of “Big Spender” or the pugilistic go-go and cocky strut of “Rich Man’s Frug.” The decision not to follow the successful “Chicago” model and replicate the original Fosse moves becomes highly questionable when the alternative is choreographer Wayne Cilento’s formless dance compositions, which too often struggle (and fail) to find any unity, layering on more when less is required.
Indeed, the handicap here is not a star without a Broadway pedigree but the lackluster stewardship of Cilento and Bobbie. This is nowhere more apparent than in a disastrous take on “The Rhythm of Life,” in which hippie religious guru Daddy (Rhett George) is swamped by a mess of unfocused ensemble dancers while his vocals are drowned in funky arrangements that resurrect “Shaft” by way of “American Idol.” What should be a punchy act-two opener becomes an amateurish muddle that stalls the momentum and erodes the good will engendered by an enjoyable first act.
If Bobbie’s direction had half the vibrancy of designer Scott Pask’s gift-wrap backdrops, the show might really have flown. A musical so strongly identified with Fosse’s electric staging and precision moves needs to be tightly marshaled; the inert, sometimes chaotic direction is anything but. That casts a glaring light on the troublesome aspects of Simon’s revised book, particularly in the second-act development of Charity’s romance with meek accountant Oscar (Denis O’Hare). He’s set up as a nice guy but ultimately revealed to be a spineless milquetoast whose love for her is unable to transcend his moral qualms about her past.
Multiple stabs have been taken over the years at creating a satisfying ending (including an aborted happy outcome shot as an alternative ending to the 1968 Universal movie), and this latest tweak, which has a hastily empowered Charity affirming her newfound self-reliance, is no more successful than its predecessors.
But the show has far too many assets to be a total miss. Chief among them are Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ terrific songs, which have snappy wit, a big heart and just the right sprinkling of sentimentality, socked across by a muscular orchestra. There are some delightful comic turns here, too, led by O’Hare’s nerdy, eccentric Oscar.
While O’Hare’s singing has limitations (compensated for with barbershop backing on the revival’s one new song, “A Good Impression”), his neurotic, twitchy personality is plenty big enough to inhabit this candy-colored musical. His shtick in the superbly designed elevator scene, when panicked claustrophobic Oscar begins literally climbing the walls, brings an invigorating new comic jolt to the show. The interplay between O’Hare and Applegate is irresistible.
Paul Schoeffler as Italian matinee idol Vittorio Vidal and Shannon Lewis as his haughty drama-queen girlfriend, Ursula, register amusing turns. Schoeffler brings strong voice to “Too Many Tomorrows,” even if the turbulent lovers’ reconciliation is overshadowed by Applegate’s comic business in the closet. Ernie Sabella makes Fandango Ballroom boss Herman a lovably crass figure, given his moment of warmth in “I Love to Cry at Weddings.”
After weighing in as feeble presences opposite d’Amboise as Charity’s sassy but soft-hearted dancehall pals, Nickie and Helene, respectively, Janine LaManna and Kyra DaCosta feed off Applegate’s sunny energy to create far more dynamic characters, even if DaCosta seems a tad too contempo ghetto for the ’60s setting. Both performers are robust singers and dancers, ably covering in the latter department for any post-injury scaling back of Charity’s dance role in “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This.” Here again, Cilento conserves an echo of Fosse in the rooftop number’s rowdy mix of toreador twirls and twinkle-toed balletics.
Prolific costumer William Ivey Long supplies countless fun variations on slinky, little dresses in bold hues, a smooth fit with the gaudy-chic wallpaper of Pask’s minimal sets. Those are peppered with droll touches such as the endlessly extending phallic couch in Vittorio’s boudoir or the Mark Rothko-style art, which allows for a snazzy silhouette lighting effect in “If My Friends Could See Me Now.”
Brian MacDevitt’s lighting throughout is a colorful mix of lurid, smoky purples and sugary pinks that seems a fitting reflection of a woman stuck in a low-life dive, dreaming of fairy tale romance.
Whatever its weaknesses, the enduring appeal of “Sweet Charity” in the end boils down to having a lead capable of inspiring as much love as she recklessly hands out, and Applegate fits that bill. Even when she’s being (literally) drummed offstage in Cilento’s bombastic, “Stomp”-ified take on “I’m a Brass Band,” the entirely adorable sitcom graduate has an unassuming charm that just won’t quit.