She's not named Charity Hope Valentine for nothing. The operative word here is "hope," the wish that everything will turn out for the best, no matter what happens.
It would be nice to report that things have come together triumphantly for "Sweet Charity," the problem-plagued revival which opened Wednesday at Broadway's Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Yet the production, like its heroine's efforts in the love department, delivers mixed, bittersweet results.
In its turbulent journey to New York, the musical has experienced more drama offstage than on. Star Christina Applegate broke her right foot in March during the show's Chicago tryout, and the Broadway production was canceled after its next stop, in Boston, where standby Charlotte d’Amboise took over the role. Yet Applegate's determination resurrected it.
Applegate, still best known these days for her role as a trampy teenager on the old sitcom "Married ... With Children," is a trouper who works hard to fill the Hirschfeld stage. As the dance-hall hostess with terrible luck in men, she's visually fetching.
Wearing a skimpy red dress, Applegate exudes a perky confidence, capturing Charity's incongruous innocence as a woman who works at the notorious Fandango Ballroom. It's a place where, as one of its more hard-bitten employees says, "We don't dance. We defend ourselves to music."
Neil Simon's book, vaguely based on Federico Fellini's film "Nights of Cabiria," chronicles Charity's luckless adventures in love -first, with a married boyfriend, who manages to steal her purse and push her into the lake in Central Park; then an Italian film star who has another woman he wants to make jealous, and finally, a nerdy accountant named Oscar Lindquist with serious commitment issues.
Applegate's voice is small but serviceable and her dancing understandably a bit cautious. Yet she doesn't have the outsized personality required to carry the show - a personality Gwen Verdon, in the 1966 original, must have possessed.
The star's lack of theater experience is all the more noticeable when she comes up against other cast members, particularly Denis O'Hare, as that claustrophobic accountant who meets Charity in a stalled elevator in the 92nd Street Y.
O'Hare is commandingly funny, even touching, until a bizarre twist at the end of the show. And there are generous supporting performances from Janine LaManna and Kyra Da Costa as two of Charity's dance-hall cohorts, Paul Schoeffler as the Italian cinema biggie and Ernie Sabella as the owner of the Fandango.
What has held up quite sturdily over the last four decades is the thoroughly ingratiating score, jaunty music by Cy Coleman and effortless lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Songs such as "I'm A Brass Band," "Where Am I Going?" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now" are reminders of what those two masters could produce.
And, of course, there's "Big Spender," a number most identified with the show's original director and choreographer, the legendary Bob Fosse. It's a bit of a shock to see the song done now with new choreography by Wayne Cilento. His dance routines don't ape Fosse, but occasionally pay homage to him -without much style or complexity of their own.
Walter Bobbie has directed the production in fits and starts, but that may have something to do with the sketch-like nature of Simon's script. The physical production looks anemic, despite ail the aggressively bright colors (it's set in the 1960s after all) that surround designer Scott Pask's bargain-basement scenery.
There's an eerie subtext to one of show's lesser known songs, "I'm the Bravest Individual," sung by Charity and Oscar in that celebrated elevator scene. You could say the same about Applegate's performance. She has put herself on the line in this show. One wishes though for a happier ending.
After six months of bad publicity - the sudden death of its composer shortly after rehearsals began, the injury of its star and a closing and reopening in Boston -"Sweet Charity" finally made it to Broadway.
And Broadway loves a happy ending.
The show far exceeded the minimal expectations it had raised.
So did its star, Christina Applegate, who is a winning and deeply likable performer.
She sings well and kicks with gusto. Whether she is credible in the title role - a dance-hall hostess who imagines love is just around the corner - raises larger questions.
"Charity" was always a problematic show. Director Walter Bobbie has not made it stronger, but the score remains joyous, and Applegate is, above all, endearing.
Still, the story is awkward. It begins with the naive Charity being pushed in the drink by a man she imagined wanted to marry her but who wanted only her purse.
Like "Nights of Cabiria," the Fellini movie on which it was based, the original 1966 book, written by Neil Simon, ended with the heroine back in the water. Here, the blow has been somewhat softened.
Giulietta Massina, who starred in the movie, and Gwen Verdon, the original Broadway star, were both Chaplinesque. There was a sadness lurking just below the surface that deepened both the humor and the pathos.
With Applegate, all you get is the perkiness. Given the weaknesses of the book, that may not be enough.
The biggest flaw is the "romance" between Applegate and Denis O'Hare, who plays a prissy accountant. Nothing about their relationship is credible, which means the whole second act has no narrative pull.
The best part of "Sweet Charity" has been its Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields score, especially "Big Spender," which gets a rousing rendition.
Janine LaManna and Kyra Da Costa do a beautiful job with "Baby, Dream Your Dream." Ernie Sabella gets great mileage out of "I Love to Cry at Weddings."
What should be Applegate's big number, "I'm a Brass Band," is here given largely to the chorus doing halftime maneuvers.
Wayne Cilento's choreography is much more exciting in "Rich Man's Frug."
The production makes shrewd use of backlighting that silhouettes Applegate, adding a spark to her dancing in several numbers.
William Ivey Long's costumes for Charity's fellow dance-hall hostesses have a witty lewdness. Brian MacDevitt's lighting provides constant compensation for Scott Pask's cheap-looking sets.
Broadway Rule No. 1: When a show is in previews, pay no attention to out-of-town reviews, word of mouth or gossip. Particularly gossip.
Granted, it's hard to see any show with a completely open mind, especially when it's "Sweet Charity," which almost unexpectedly opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre last night after a saga of misadventures that made the Perils of Pauline sound like a theme-park ride.
Surprise, surprise: It's pretty damn good. And Christina Applegate - much maligned for her talent and condescendingly admired for her spunk and persistence - is damn good as well.
I wasn't as surprised as I should have been. I had snuck in (paying the box-office ransom for my ticket) at the end of the first week of previews to see Charlotte D'Amboise play Charity.
Consequently, I knew the show was in far better shape than those Broadway insiders suggested, and was likely to improve with time. It has.
But this is a show that starts and ends with Charity. And Applegate - the ankle-impaired star of TV, but Broadway unknown - is good. Not better than the brilliant and far more experienced D'Amboise, and not as polished, but Applegate, as pretty as a picture and as cool as a Popsicle, emerges from the entire ordeal of this opening triumphant and glistening.
Bob Fosse formulated "Sweet Charity" in 1966 as a vehicle for his sometime wife Gwen Verdon.
The book, originally by Fosse but rewritten by Neil Simon, is based on the great Federico Fellini's movie "Nights of Cabiria," about a sweet and sparrowlike Italian prostitute and her rough luck with men.
In the musical, the heroine is a taxi dancer in one of those "10-cents-a-dance" palaces.
Despite a few nice Simonesque touches, the book is still thin and episodic, with brave little Charity shining through veils of disillusion.
The show is really little more than a row of pegs upon which to hang Cy Coleman's gorgeously glittering razzmatazz tunes - with their upbeat Dorothy Fields lyrics - and the dances.
Unlike the 1986 revival starring Debbie Allen, Walter Bobbie's nifty staging has been completely rethought and retooled.
The choreographer Wayne Cilento doesn't simply Fosse-lize the dances, but gives them their own punch and individuality.
The always dazzling, always unexpected Denis O'Hare does such an exultant, cartwheeling star-turn as the shy but prissy suitor Oscar that he almost overturns the applecart, not to say Applegate.
Fundamentally, though, it's all about Charity. D'Amboise, currently Broadway's best star dancer, not unexpectedly danced and sang a great deal better.
But Applegate has the edge of youth and a natural vulnerability compared with the more contrived vulnerability of both Verdon and later D'Amboise.
Of course, the role of Charity is better than the musical itself, but when Coleman's music is blazing along like Sousa in a dark jazz overdrive, if the Charity is right, as here, you'll have a great time.
Charity Hope Valentine, the cockeyed optimist from the 1966 musical "Sweet Charity," believes that fairy tales do come true, despite cruel evidence to the contrary. So, it would seem, does Christina Applegate, the appealing but underequipped star of the lukewarm revival of "Sweet Charity" that opened last night at the Al Hirschfeld Theater after weeks of widely reported toil and strife.
The road to Broadway for this production has generated theater news of a kind you supposed didn't happen anymore, or perhaps never really happened except in old backstage movies. Star breaks leg (well, a bone in her foot) twirling off lamppost onstage in Chicago; talented understudy (Charlotte d'Amboise) opens for star in Boston; producers decide to close show; star insists that she will, will get better in time for a delayed New York opening and helps raise the extra money to ensure show's arrival, just before the deadline for Tony nominations. And you thought "42nd Street" was just moonshine.
So when Ms. Applegate steps into view at the Hirschfeld, in a tiny red dress and a halo of adrenaline, it is to the accompaniment of excited thoughts from an audience braced for a Busby Berkeley-style climax, be it triumph or catastrophe. (Look, she's standing next to that dangerous lamppost! Look, she's wearing unflattering ankle boots for therapeutic support! Look, one leg seems to bend less easily than the other!) And then Ms. Applegate starts to sing and dance and a collective sigh stirs the air that sounds like relief, yes, but also deflation.
Ms. Applegate, who is best known for 11 seasons as the dopey daughter on the sitcom "Married ... With Children," exudes a soft hopefulness and a sterner determination that suit her character, an unlucky dance-hall hostess in eternal pursuit of love. She has a comic polish that considerately stops short of polyurethane sheen, and an easy, conversational way with a song, even if her voice isn't always on pitch.
But as a character meant to be a shopworn angel, Ms. Applegate looks more like a merry cherub, an ingénue fresh from the suburbs. More important, in the musical numbers, she seems to grow smaller rather than bigger, which is one thing that definitely should not happen if you are playing Charity Hope Valentine.
The magic generated four decades ago by "Sweet Charity," which has a first-rate score by Cy Coleman (with charming lyrics by Dorothy Fields) and a second-rate book by Neil Simon, presumably came mostly from the alchemical collaboration of its original director and choreographer, Bob Fosse, and its star, Gwen Verdon. They were virtuosos of a sweet-and-sour style that must have gone a long way in leavening the winking cuteness of a show that featured a dance-hall hostess as its heroine, a bizarrely quaint profession even 40 years ago. (The character was a streetwalker in the 1957 movie that inspired "Sweet Charity," Federico Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria.")
When it was revived in 1986, with Fosse again in charge and Debbie Allen in the title role, "Sweet Charity" showed its age, but not in the dance numbers. The choreography still pulsed with the defiant, angular eroticism that was Fosse, a man whose oft-cited equation of showbiz with prostitution seemed particularly appropriate in this case. But the production asked a question that boded ill for future incarnations: Could "Charity" possibly soar without the Fosse touch and a star who thrilled to it?
This latest revival, directed by Walter Bobbie and choreographed by Wayne Cilento, answers that question with a weary "no." While the overture, with its delicious opening vamp from the song "Big Spender," makes you salivate, the main course never seems to arrive.
The show is steeped in a fuzzy, Pop-colored campiness that whispers raspingly, "Weren't the 60's a hoot?," and includes visual references to Andy Warhol (the person) and Color Field painting. This sensibility translates more attractively into the show's costumes (by the omnipresent William Ivey Long) than into its set (Scott Pask) and lighting (Brian MacDevitt), which suggest quickly set up, psychedelic-themed store displays at Bed, Bath & Beyond.
Mr. Cilento's choreography is similarly ersatz and soft-edged, acknowledging and blurring the original Fosse blueprint. (The best numbers here are the most unapologetically Fosse-like, "Rich Man's Frug" and "Big Spender.") The dances never achieve more than a low-grade fever, when what's wanted is that old steam heat. The pop-religion parody, "The Rhythm of Life," usually a guaranteed showstopper, fizzles for want of choreographic and satiric sharpness.
The supporting cast includes solid pros like Ernie Sabella (as the dance-hall proprietor) and, as two of the many men in Charity's life, Denis O'Hare and the handsome-voiced Paul Schoeffler. Doing a variation on his Tony-winning performance as a neurotic gay accountant in Richard Greenberg's "Take Me Out," Mr. O'Hare at least provides some comic oxygen as a neurotic heterosexual accountant.
As Charity's hard-bitten best friends (and co-workers), Janine LaManna and Kyra Da Costa bring an otherwise absent spark to "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," an exultant skirt-swishing tribute to the "America" sequence from "West Side Story." Ms. Applegate, it should be noted, the third member of the trio, more or less disappears in this number.
Actually, whenever Ms. Applegate dances, she shrinks, even in big solo turns like "If My Friends Could See Me Now." She is a graceful physical comedian, and she reads her lines with winning conviction (though she sometimes sounds as if she has spent a lot of time watching Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 film adaptation).
But while she executes her steps with care and precision, dance is not a transcendent form of self-expression for Ms. Applegate. And let's face it, neither is song. Nor ultimately does she have the sheer freakish force of personality to make her numbers work despite this, as the musically challenged Melanie Griffith did when she joined the cast of "Chicago."
Thus it is that "Sweet Charity" concludes a Broadway season weak on musicals not with a hoped-for fanfare but with an all-too-appropriate wistful whimper.