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Sweet Charity: They'd Never Believe It

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By the time Sweet Charity premiered on Broadway in 1966, the era of the "concept musical" was in full swing. Director/choreographers such as Jerome Robbins and Gower Champion were using their skills as a form of writing and their visuals had become just as important as the book, music and lyrics in telling the story. Robbins' contributions to the creation of West Side Story, Gypsy and Fiddler on the Roof were considered so important to the success of those productions that Broadway revivals were contractually obligated to use certain aspects of his staging and choreography.

Sweet Charity was Bob Fosse's first chance to direct and choreograph a show which would be written around his ideas. It was he who envisioned the Fellini film Nights of Cabiria, where Giulietta Masina evoked a Charlie Chaplinesque quality as a Roman prostitute, as a vehicle for Gwen Verdon. Building on the Chaplin theme, Verdon played a dance hall hostess looking for a good man to love her. Though continually knocked down by life, she always manages to retain her optimism long enough to merrily dance through the streets of New York, just as carefree as The Little Tramp kicking up his heels doing his patented funny walk. Like Chaplin, he had her wear the same black outfit for the entire show and even had a routine written into the script where she'd dance around in a black hat and cane. (Although the hat wasn't a Chaplin bowler, the collapsible top hat used offered the chance to incorporate physical silent-movie style bits.)

The writing team assembled was top notch. Bookwriter Neil Simon dominated Broadway in the 1960's by creating a wise-cracking style of New York comedy and was a perfect choice to write this contemporary urban fairy tale. Lyricist Dorothy Fields was aces writing for strong female characters and had a knack for poetic use of contemporary slang. She may not have created the expressions "if my friends could see me now" and "hey, big spender", but when teamed up with Cy Colemen, who was being handed his first opportunity to incorporate contemporary jazz into a Broadway score, they wrote songs that forever placed those words in the American vernacular.

. But Sweet Charity is not a complete text with just its book, music and lyrics. It's certainly a funny show with some terrific songs, but Fosse's choreography was the fourth dramatic element that contributed to the writing of the show. Characters were more fully developed through dance. Songs like "Charity's Soliloquy" and "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" are excellent theatre songs, not just because of their music and lyrics, but because they introduce themes that strong narrative staging can complete. The title character can seem a bit of a doormat at times, but it's through her dancing that we actually feel her heart.

I'm not saying you need Bob Fosse's choreography in order to successfully do Sweet Charity. Of course not. You don't even need a Gwen Verdon emulating Charlie Chaplin. But you do need something not supplied by Simon, Fields and Coleman to propel this show. And that's what's missing from the current Broadway revival. There is no artistic aspect that steps forward and declares this is what Sweet Charity is all about, and a show that can absolutely sizzle now continually fizzles.

There are times when I questioned if director Walter Bobbie and choreographer Wayne Cilento bothered to read the script. If the dance hall really is, as one of the employees explains, a place where they have to keep the lights dim so customers don't realize how aged and worse for wear the hostesses are, then why do they all look so young and attractive? (Well, they would look attractive if not for the hideously cartoonish outfits supplied by William Ivey Long.) Did anyone take the time to read the dialogue and lyrics pertaining to the Rhythm of Life Church, meant to satirize the 60's trend of quickie religions fostered by free love and drug-induced spiritualism, before staging the scene like a taping of Soul Train?

Although Cilento's choreography continually quotes Fosse's routines, he fails to deliver the qualities that made Fosse a great dramatist. His dances have no build. They stay on the same emotional level and carry on with little variation. And although they are performed well, the dancers rarely express varying degrees of emotion, making classic routines like "Rich Man's Frug" and "I'm a Brass Band" become dull and repetitive very quickly.

Cilento did break away from the Fosse mold in "Big Spender", but the decision to bring the dance hall's customers into the scene (all looking like losers) and have the dancers occasionally grind up against them gives the number an artless vulgarity. Though aggressively trying to be erotic, this is perhaps the least sexy staging of "Big Spender" imaginable. (Did I mention the hideous outfits?) Soon after, "Charity's Soliloquy", written as the only moment in the show where we see the title character dancing with a customer, giving a firm visual impression of her true attitude towards her work, is now staged in her dressing room with Charity simply changing her clothes, wasting some outstanding dance music. (To be fair, the choreographer had to work with a star whose broken foot is still healing, which may have forced a re-interpretation of the number. I have no idea if the staging was changed post-injury.)

With a weakly directed and choreographed production the actors seem left to their own devices to try and scratch out a performance. The most successful is Paul Schoeffler, in the pocket-sized role of film heartthrob Vittorio Vidal. In his roughly fifteen minutes on stage Schoeffler provides a wickedly funny spoof of machismo elegance that evolves into a warm and brotherly presence as the first man to treat Charity with respect and decency. He works Simon's comedy like a charm and wraps a powerful baritone around his one ballad, nimbly balancing the romance of the song with the comic context in which it's presented. Schoeffler provides the best fifteen minutes of musical comedy acting this season.

If you missed Denis O'Hare's Tony winning performance as a flamboyantly neurotic Chelsea accountant in Take Me Out, you'll see much of it in his portrayal of Oscar, Charity's main love interest. True, the characters are fairly similar, but although O"Hare is frequently very funny, he seems to be in a different show than his romantic counterpart. He may look at her from time to time, but his first scenes are so focused on his wild antics that there's no foundation set when he finally tries to express sincerity. He sings with a voice that's loud, on key and, when he's not going for a laugh, adheres firmly to the melody line, but unlike a musical theatre performer who excels at acting through singing, O'Hare always seems to be working so hard to get the music right that the lyrics seem ignored.

Janine LaManna, an accomplished musical theatre performer who certainly excels at acting through singing, seems misguided here and her performance amounts to little more than a series of wise-cracks. Teamed with Kyra Da Costa, there is little difference between them in their roles as Charity's best friends. They dance Cilento's uninspired choreography as best as can be expected.

Ernie Sabella does a lot of yelling and looks funny in a brown checked jacket. I believe this was meant to be endearing.

In the title role, Christina Applegate gives perhaps the best performance that can be expected from someone who hasn't been in a musical since she was a child, is making her Broadway debut playing an extremely demanding role in a weakly directed and choreographed production, and is still recovering from a broken foot. If you wish to cut her some slack because of her injury, that's totally within your rights. All I can do here is describe for you what she's doing on stage.

The good news is that Neil Simon's style of comedy is a good fit for her and she performs her book scenes nicely, often coming off as impish and amiable. The bad news is that musical theatre is an art form where the meat of a character is presented through singing and, especially in the case of Sweet Charity, dancing, and her shortcomings in these areas are what makes her performance seem less like a full acting job and more like "Christina Applegate doing a musical."

There have certainly been musical comedy stars with smaller voices, but the main problem with Applegate's singing is that she doesn't seem trained to act a song. Like O'Hare she appears to be working so hard to stick to the melody line that the lyrics suffer. There's no immediacy. She also takes breaths in the middle of sentences and musical phrases, giving the impression that she's gasping for air. This is especially apparent in Act II's "Where Am I Going?", a song where Charity finally comes to terms with the way she allows men to step all over her and decides to be more aggressive in getting what she wants. Coleman gives the song a fine dramatic build, but Applegate speaks and cries during more than half the number, eliminating the music's impact and turning the scene into a plea for pity.

She does do a lot of dancing in the show, but is mostly regulated to repeating basic steps, retreating to the rear when others take over with more complex routines. Perhaps the choreography may change once her foot heals, and perhaps with more voice training Ms. Applegate can become a fine musical theatre performer. She is certainly taking the responsibility of starring in a Broadway show seriously and I'm sure she's trying her best, but maybe if she chose a less demanding role for her debut, and was better directed, she wouldn't seem so unprepared. I can see her doing a nice job filling in for Sherie Rene Scott in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and the planned Broadway revival of Barefoot in the Park seems like a perfect match. But as it stands this is a performance that would most likely not have been considered acceptable for Broadway if the star had not already been famous.

It's no coincidence that the Golden Age of Broadway occurred at a time when much of the television industry worked out of New York and performances by musical theatre stars were broadcast into the homes of millions of Americans. Tourists would come to Broadway excited to see actors who devoted their careers to the stage because they were familiar faces. But without that kind of exposure, the most talented Broadway performers -- those who are perfectly capable of equaling the accomplishments of those of the Golden Age -- walk the streets of New York every day virtually unrecognized and are continually at risk of losing jobs to less qualified actors with bankable names. You can't blame producers for wanting to make money.

Ask anyone who attends Broadway musicals regularly and they would probably have no trouble naming 3 or 4 actor/singer/dancers who could make exceptional Charitys, perhaps even rising above this limp production. Unfortunately, despite being written by musical theatre royalty, Sweet Charity would not have been revived without a famous person playing the lead, and these days you don't become famous by devoting your career to Broadway. Just ask... what's her name? You know, the lady playing the Rene Zellweger part in Chicago.

 

Photos by Paul Kolnik: Top and Center: Christina Applegate
Bottom: Christina Applegate and Denis O'Hare

 


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