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Theater: Sweet Charity
by Catey Sullivan
2005-03-09

This article shared 6949 times since Wed Mar 9, 2005
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Book by Neil Simon, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, music by Cy Coleman

At: The Cadillac Palace Theatre

Tickets: ( 312 ) 902-1400;

www.broadwayinchicago.com; $32-$77

Through: March 13:

Ah, the hooker with the heart of gold. It's a conceit that dates from Mary Magdalene to All My Children's Donna Beck and beyond. Now, it's Christina Applegate's turn to play the archetypical character in the lavishly produced revival of Sweet Charity.

The tale of a big-hearted 'dance hall hostess' longing to break free of her tawdry life and get a job as a hat check girl or even a secretary is packed with explosive, Fosse-indebted dance numbers, deluxe, eye-popping costumes and splendid supporting performances.

What it lacks is a star charismatic and forceful enough to make the production more than just a series of sumptuously staged episodes.

Neil Simon's book is tricky ( no pun intended ) to navigate. Penned pre-'Ms.' magazine in an era when the Pill was still controversial, Simon's nearly zinger-free script can be seen as a relic of an age when a woman aspiring to be a hat check girl didn't seem absurd.

The hopes and dreams of Charity Hope Valentine—get a man, get a house in the suburbs—can seem archaic and irrelevant to modern audiences. To make the story resonate, Charity's got to get across the point that it isn't really a bourgeois wonderland she's yearning for—it's love.

That's a point Applegate never makes clear. Without that clarity to serve as the foundation of the show, Sweet Charity becomes a passé period piece rather than a universal story of longing.

Director Walter Bobbie has Applegate playing the role with kewpie-doll cute freshness, and that's a mistake. Applegate looks like a well-scrubbed, 1966 version of Miss Kansas rather than a been-around-the-block paid escort whose hopes and dreams have been repeatedly dashed. That cheerleader freshness makes her come-ons in one key scene fall flat. A little raunch and grit would go a long way toward making the character richer.

More problematic is the fact that Applegate just isn't the fireball force of nature the role of Charity demands. Her dancing is competent, but competent is not enough to do right by choreographer Wayne Cilento's Fosse-inspired moves. Further, Applegate's girlish, Betty Boop-like vocals aren't sufficient to meet the powerhouse demands of Cy Coleman's magnificent score. Precariously flat on the solo openings of some songs, Applegate doesn't seem confident of the score.

Numbers such as the joyously raucous 'If My Friends Could See Me Now,' and the soul-searching 'Where Am I Going' don't blaze in her delivery, they merely glow. You need more than glow to make Sweet Charity more than a mildly pleasant diversion—and at up to $77 a ticket, Sweet Charity should be more than mere diversion.

It doesn't help that Sweet Charity inevitably evokes the extraordinary talents of Shirley MacLaine ( who starred in the 1969 film version ) or Gwen Verdon, who created the role on stage in 1966.

In bust-a-gut song 'n dance extravaganzas such as 'I'm A Brass Band,' when Applegate seems to be working rather than emanating the effortless jubilation the script calls for, one's fancy turns to the natural pizzazz of Verdon and MacLaine.

What elevates director Walter Bobbie's revival beyond meaningless ( if well financed ) exercise in musical theater are a couple of supporting characters, Cilento's incendiary dance numbers and William Ivey Long's sexy, 1960s-as-seen-by-Pater Max costumes.

As claustrophobic nerd and Charity beau Oscar, Denis O'Hare is a hoot and a half, a marvel of idiosyncratic twitches bound to make even those who usually turn their noses up at physical comedy crack a grin.

Equally excellent is Natascia Diaz as dance hall girl Nickie. Diaz smolders in her quieter scenes and burns up the stage in roof-raisers such as 'There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This.'

Sweet Charity needs to be something better than it is to satisfy its audiences fully.


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