Christina Applegate's thin, reedy voice is never going to be mistaken for a brass band. That's the bad news that will stay the bad news all the way to Gotham, big spenders. But she's no celebrity charity case, either. Indeed, the former sitcom star almost busts her little naturalistic gut turning Charity Hope Valentine into a sweet, empathetic, sexy and intensely vulnerable dance-hall hostess whose tawdry life and times genuinely capture one's heart. Thanks to her strikingly honesty acting -- and a delicious dexterity with the one-liner honed by years on "Married ... With Children" -- Applegate's perf far exceeds the low expectations of the usual celeb tuner turn.

Christina Applegate’s thin, reedy voice is never going to be mistaken for a brass band. That’s the bad news that will stay the bad news all the way to Gotham, big spenders. But she’s no celebrity charity case, either. Indeed, the former sitcom star almost busts her little naturalistic gut turning Charity Hope Valentine into a sweet, empathetic, sexy and intensely vulnerable dance-hall hostess whose tawdry life and times genuinely capture one’s heart. Thanks to her strikingly honesty acting — and a delicious dexterity with the one-liner honed by years on “Married … With Children” — Applegate’s perf far exceeds the low expectations of the usual celeb tuner turn.

Assuming the right fixes are made, the rest of Walter Bobbie’s stylish $7.5 million production has very solid Broadway prospects. With straightforward but pleasing choreography that lands somewhere between Fosse and “Shaft,” this is a young, hip, fresh, droll and under-anticipated “Sweet Charity” that should show greater-than-expected appeal for auds schooled on Austin Powers.”

As shrewd producers Fran and Barry Weissler learned with the massively populist “Chicago,” there are far more youngsters who’ve never heard of this show than there are Broadway purists ready to worry about why the character of Herman lost so much stage time.

Since “Charity” always was a show with one foot in traditional musical comedy and another in the pop-rock era it immediately preceded, the sardonic material is still racy enough to have appeal for the under-40 crowd. Bobbie and choreographer Wayne Cilento play to that postmodern love of pastiche — the piece has Scott Pask’s good-looking Carnaby Street-style visuals and an outre sexuality reminiscent of “Chicago.” But then it also has those terrific little songs and a Neil Simon book that’s been given a new coat of paint and feels all the better for it.

The revisions are most noticeable at the beginning. The show virtually opens with “Big Spender,” dispensing with most of the first scene. And the close of the piece has a more upbeat veneer (although Oscar remains a wimp). Also, “I Love to Cry at Weddings” now gets about 30 seconds of stage time.

The Applegate pipes aren’t a horror show. She hits most of the notes. What you don’t get is much oomph or weight behind them — so numbers like “Where Am I Going?” tend to lack the requisite drama. (You could argue that’s no different from original Charity Gwen Verdon, but we’re now used to hearing these ditties belted out by accomplished vocalists.)

A reasonable dancer, Applegate compensates for the vocals by acting the songs as if her life depended on it (which, creatively speaking, it does). In the case of “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” a terrific scene here, it really pays off. The young star’s sheer teenlike joy at cruising the bedroom of a flashy movie star is so palpable and well actualized you’re ready to forgive any musical sins in a heartbeat. The shtick in the closet is a gas.

So it goes for much of the show. Applegate — whose newness to Broadway is one of her biggest assets — simply throws herself out there with a perpetual smile and an occasional tear, and fights for the aud’s affection, flaws be damned. When she says she’d pump gas to get her man, it feels like the truth. And in Chi, where the tolerance for effete fakery always has run low, her work was clearly appreciated.

Applegate has been shrewdly matched with Denis O’Hare, whose paternalistic but wildly offbeat Oscar deftly reinforces this production’s slightly postmodern sense of parody. O’Hare probably gets a bit too wacky toward the end (and the title number here is rendered in an atonal, weird arrangement that spoils its beauty), but he and Applegate have the collective effect of freshening up the material and rescuing it from the old Broadway cliches. At times, it feels like “Charity” moved to the WB, but that’s probably not a bad thing for the bottom line.

Bobbie also has the benefit of a couple of knockout second bananas in Natascia Diaz and Solange Sandy, whose “Baby Dream Your Dream” is a highlight of the show.

Then there are the lowlights. Top of the list is the visually messy, poorly sung “The Rhythm of Life,” wherein the lyrics entirely disappear in the middle of Big Daddy’s sermon. What should be a showstopper is the production’s weakest moment. The rushed wedding party is not far behind. And Ernie Sabella badly needs some help grounding Herman. “Charity’s Soliloquy” needs to settle down, lest it become “Charity tries too hard to please.”

Most of that stuff can be fixed. Applegate’s honest efforts here are the key to the show. And honest efforts they are, movingly so at times. She does all one reasonably could ask of her. It should be enough to keep her Charity in business and out of the dance halls.

Sweet Charity

Cadillac Palace Theater, Chicago, 2,500 seats, $77 top

Production

A Barry and Fran Weissler and Clear Channel Entertainment presentation of a musical in two acts. Music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Book by Neil Simon, based on an original screenplay by Frederico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano. Directed by Walter Bobbie.

Creative

Choreography, Wayne Cilento. Musical direction, Gordon Lowry Harrell. Sets, Scott Pask; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Brian MacDevitt; sound, Peter Hylenski; orchestrations, Don Sebesky, production stage manager, David O'Brien. Opened, reviewed March 3, 2005. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Charity Hope Valentine - Christina Applegate Oscar Lindquist - Denis O'Hare Nickie - Natascia Diaz Helene - Solange Sandy Herman - Ernie Sabella Ursula - Shannon Lewis Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck - Rhett George Vittorio Vidal - Paul Schoeffler
With: 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, Corinne McFadden, Marielys Molina, Timothy Edward Smith, Seth Stewart.

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