A Show to Cheer For

After its pre-opening tribulations, Broadway’s “Sweet Charity” revival soars

It’s official: Broadway has an old-fashioned sweetheart and it’s a cause for excessive celebration.

Forgive me if I gush, but there aren’t that many opportunities to do it. Christina Applegate in “Sweet Charity” not only owns the stage at the Hirschfeld, she fills the entire auditorium with such radiant charm, wonderful dancing and delightful comedy that you may never want to leave. I’ve now seen the show twice, and I’m ready to go back again––and I seldom feel that way. With this production, Applegate, best known for her role on TV’s “Married With Children,” demonstrates that her name above the title is not just a marketing ploy, it’s billing she’s earned and, judging by the praise she’s engendering and the skill she’s displaying, something she can bank on for decades to come.

It’s ironic that so clearly set as it is in the 1960s, “Sweet Charity” can still seem so fresh today. The search for love in the big city, the struggles with morality and even the “church of the month” are all relevant to today’s world. Combined with a classic Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields score and a legitimately funny book by Neil Simon, the show has stood the test of time.

“Charity” is the story of a dance hall hostess, a perennial optimist who keeps falling in love with the wrong guys and is stuck in her shady business. She finally meets Oscar Lindquist who, though a bit quirky, is the stable accountant she thinks will take her away from it all, and it almost happens. Her life may be in a shambles again, but she remains upbeat, even confronting real heartbreak. That’s what has made Charity one of the most enduring and endearing characters in the history of musicals.

The show always sugarcoated that Charity, by another name and in the film the story comes from, is a prostitute and this version rewrites the original book even further to ensure that while other dancers might provide some extracurricular services, Charity does not. The rewrite makes Charity more of a legitimate chorus girl and Oscar therefore seems even more extreme in his reaction to her past than in earlier productions and, but ultimately it doesn’t undermine the essential relationships or tensions in the piece and mostly passes unnoticed. The central issue is that whatever has been dished out to Charity, she’s still fundamentally a hopeful girl. The darker issues of cultural hypocrisy and class prejudice play no role in this sprightly show.

What makes Applegate’s performance so extraordinary is that she can really act the role. She neither overplays to pathos nor shrinks from the heartbreak. Her Charity has a transparency that is never forced or coy but rather seems fully integrated and allows us to open our hearts to her even as she encounters the slings and arrows of the life she’s in. She brings the same level of honesty and freshness to her numbers, which include show stoppers like “If They Could See Me Now” and “I’m a Brass Band” but also more reflective soliloquies. Her commitment to the essence of each number is remarkable and powerful.

And her dancing? I first saw this production in previews when Applegate was recovering from a broken foot. I was impressed then. But now that she’s mended, she’s incredible. She hits her marks every time, and her dancing—like all the movement in the piece—is completely organic and precise. Taken as a whole, in a world where the standing ovation is commonplace, Applegate has made it completely legit again—compelling the audience to their feet at the curtain call.

Denis O’Hare plays Oscar with a kind of comic abandon that is wonderful but, at the same time, his torment over his ultimate inability to marry Charity because of her past is equally persuasive. O’Hare has a sweetness and vulnerability that infuses his entire performance and makes him charming, human and flawed.

The rest of the skilled company includes Janine LaManna’s Nickie and Kyra DaCosta as Helene in wonderful performances as Charity’s more hardened cronies from the dance hall. Paul Schoeffler is delightfully unctuous as film star Vitorio Vidal and Enrie Sabella is appropriately curmudgeonly as Herman, the owner of the dance hall.

The sets by Scott Pask are terrific with patterns and shapes that scream the period and include a wonderful treatment for the elevator and Ferris wheel scenes. My favorite moment, though, is the Mark Rothko-like painting that morphs into a wonderful set piece.

All of this proceeds under the sure handed direction of Walter Bobbie and the choreography of Wayne Cilento. Some of the group numbers are repetitive (“The Rich Man’s Frug”) or clunky, as in “The Rhythm of Life.”

Yet even these complaints are trivial and pale in comparison to Applegate’s high-wattage brilliance. I don’t know when you’ll see anyone work harder or with more heart to give you the time of your life—unless it would be Sweet Charity herself.

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