How do we define a great musical? If we mean one that can bring pleasure a second or third time around, even in an inferior revival, then Sweet Charity is a not-quite-great musical: It has the qualities that bring survival, but it has them wanly, only to a minor degree. Its story is mildly interesting rather than involving. The book being by Neil Simon, it has no characters beyond the hero and heroine; the other folk are mainly there to deliver the jokes. (Which are Neil Simon jokes: They’re not really funny but you laugh anyway.) The Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields songs, the show’s strongest asset, are an uneven lot, with some top-drawer numbers and a few too many from the middle drawer, though, as always with Coleman, there is apparently no bottom drawer; everything is wonderfully crafted musically, harmonically alive, and rhythmically tickling. Fields’s lyrics are up to her standard, which means always freshly heard but sometimes less than perfectly wrought. Whatever the writers’ shortcomings, the quality is there in the material, waiting for artists who can bring it back to life.
But Charity‘s not so easy to revive. Built in an equivocal time (1966), when the art of the Broadway musical was beginning to run down, it’s a quirky creature that demands sensitive handling. Its makers were practitioners of old-time showmanship, whose preferred mode was the Broadway of one-liners and razzmatazz. Trying to adapt themselves to the musical’s newer, Rodgers-and-Hammerstein “serious” vein, they had to stretch their creative muscles, and you often feel the strain. Sweet Charity is not based on a standard comic situation from some affectionately regarded old American book, play, or movie; it’s one of the few Broadway musicals based on a foreign film, a somberly ironic one at that: Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. Certain things were naturally toned down to reassure Broadway’s expense account sensibilities: Fellini’s Cabiria is a prostitute; Simon’s Charity Hope Valentine is what used to be called a taxi dancer. This makes the show an anomaly in its time: Manhattan’s pay-to-dance halls had all but vanished by the mid ’60s, when Charity is supposed to take place, giving way to the peepshows and massage parlors of an increasingly seedier Times Square. Hence Charity is a quasi-realistic show that takes place in no discernible reality.
What eases an audience over Charity‘s reality gaps is, or should be, its showmanship. The shakier a musical’s basic materials are, the more it needs the cunning flamboyance of designers, choreographic imagination and energy, swift and knowingly detailed direction, character actors quick to characterize, and most of all a star’s charisma. Charity ran in 1966, and again in 1986, because it had all those things (a little diminished in 1986). The current production, to its misfortune, offers only bare hints of them. The result isn’t appalling; you go home thinking that these are pleasant enough people to be around, that Coleman and Fields wrote pretty good songs, and that Sweet Charity is by no means the worst old musical to have available in a year of largely miserable “new” musicals. But something’s distinctly lacking.
Don’t pin the lack solely on the person most visible onstage. Much ado has been made, pro and con, about Christina Applegate’s abilities. She’s not the worst performer ever to move from television into actual acting. She has looks, and pluck, and sweetness; she can sing a bit, and dance a bit better than that (even while favoring her newly mended foot). Probably, in a role better suited to her, her little dollop of charisma would go a longer way; probably, if she sticks with the stage despite all her Charity misadventures, her ability to project her presence will only increase. She doesn’t command the heartbreaking pathos for this role. And—an important point—she’s too pretty to play a girl who’s always getting dumped by men. Gwen Verdon’s off-angle looks and brash, throaty voice made this believable: You could see why some dumb guy might betray her, though you yourself of course knew better. Verdon only became a complete wonder when dance revealed her inner self. Since certain things have been made easier for Applegate after her foot injury, it’s hard to tell how far her dancing gifts extend, but it’s unlikely they come anywhere near the spectacular emotional bond that Verdon’s body, in motion, could forge with an audience.
To be fair, Applegate isn’t offered much of an opportunity to be spectacular, in dance or any other area. Because a show like Charity tests the production-makers’ imaginations in every department, you can plainly see the form’s decline in quality over the last two decades. Walter Bobbie’s production looks drab and hurried, its jokes and big moments punched heavily out front, to make sure the tourists catch on. Scott Pask’s sets, mostly dark, flat enclosures, heighten this by pushing the action downstage. Wayne Cilento’s choreography, relentlessly routine, makes the numbers seem to blur into one another. Denis O’Hare, as Charity’s hung-up boyfriend Oscar, gives the evening’s one strikingly original and commanding performance, but even he plays more broadly than he should. Janine LaManna and Kyra DaCosta are only adequate as Charity’s wisecracking co-workers; Paul Schoeffler is inadequate, in both looks and voice, as the Italian movie star who briefly picks her up.
Still, it’s a virtue to be charitable to Charity. Applegate has her own charm, if not the character’s. O’Hare, even coarsened, is a marvel. And even when kicked about this way, the Coleman-Fields score has its joys. Given the badness of most current Broadway musicals, Charity could almost be the greatest of these.