Low expectations were partly responsible for my enjoyment of the no longer New York-bound revisal of Sweet Charity that closed yesterday in Boston, but I suspect also that the show was much better when I saw it than when it began what was supposed to be its pre-Broadway tour in Minneapolis. As seen at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on Friday night, this was a flawed but worthy new production of the underrated 1966 musical by Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields, and Neil Simon. It boasted a winning performance in the title role by Charlotte d'Amboise, who had inherited the part from an injured Christina Applegate less than two weeks earlier.
My low expectations were not dispelled by the first few seconds of the performance. The original Sweet Charity overture is quintessentially Broadway but also impressively symphonic in construction. The arresting vamp of one of the show's most famous songs, "Big Spender," is blared out by the brass at the top of the piece as sort of a leitmotif for the title character's tawdry existence as a dance-hall hostess. This yields to a bouncy version of another hit from the score, "If My Friends Could See Me Now," representing Charity at her happiest. In succession follow the melodies of the title song (Charity hears "warm words" from a man for perhaps the first time in her life), the powerful "Where Am I Going?" (Charity in crisis), and the joyous "I'm a Brass Band" (Charity on top of the world again) before the "Big Spender" vamp reasserts itself as if to signify that our heroine will never be able to escape her current lifestyle. This brilliant structure was obliterated by the revisal's new overture, so I was prepared for the worst -- but things improved greatly thereafter.
Based on what I've read and heard, it seems that the performing edition of the new production gradually became much closer to the original during its engagements in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Boston. By the time I saw it, only one new song remained: "A Good Impression," sung by Oscar Lindquist to Charity in Act II. (Some say that composer Cy Coleman retrieved this item from his trunk before his death in November.) Though both "You Should See Yourself" (Charity's opening solo) and the ensemble number "I Love to Cry at Weddings" had been cut from the show, they were restored for Boston. Another added number, "If There Were More People Like You," was listed in the program in place of "I Love to Cry at Weddings" but was not performed. Indeed, aside from some new arrangements (most noticeably in "The Rhythm of Life") and several ill-advised rewirites of sections of the book by Simon (including an unconvincing new ending and a few "jokes" that were real clunkers), this Charity turned out to be less of a "revisal" than originally planned. And, as a famous blonde who recently did time in the slammer might say, that's a good thing!
I'm here to tell you that d'Amboise was a sheer delight in the role of Charity Hope Valentine. Though, alas, she's not a ticket-selling household name, the lady is rightfully acknowledged as a triple-threat performer with oodles of talent and charisma. (For my money, she was much warmer and funnier than Bebe Neuwirth as Lola in the Broadway revisal of Damn Yankees). Aside from a couple of mispronunciations -- she rendered Vittorio Vidal's first name as "Victorio" and, in "If My Friends Could See Me Now," sang "traisping" instead of "traipsing" -- it was almost impossible to believe that d'Amboise had been playing Charity for only one week as of Friday night. Her characterization was notable for her employment of a sweet, feathery New York accent; this makes total sense for the part, and it happily conjured shades of Judy Holliday's indelible performance in the film version of Born Yesterday. (I mean that as the highest possible compliment.)
As Oscar, Charity's sweet but all too neurotic boyfriend, Denis O'Hare was equally excellent. Though I'm sure some might have found his performance too overtly eccentric and tic-laden, the audience clearly adored him, and so did I. Janine LaManna and Kyra DaCosta, recent replacements for Natascia Diaz and Solange Sandy (respectively), were aces as Charity's dance hall cohorts Nickie and Helene. "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," their big number with d'Amboise, was one of the show's unquestionable highlights; another was their more intimate, touching duet "Baby, Dream Your Dream." Paul Schoeffler brought his big, beautiful voice and perfect comic timing to the role of Vittorio, and Ernie Sabella was an endearing Herman despite his continued struggles with overweight and ill health.
Production values were solid. The orchestra, though much smaller than that of the 1966 Sweet Charity, played very well indeed under musical director Gordon Lowry Harrell. (Too bad they didn't get to play the overture as originally written!) Scott Pask's set designs relied much more on colorful drops and curtains rather than on actual set pieces, with the major exceptions of a mile-long red couch (plus a functional closet) for the Vittorio Vidal scene and a section of a ferris wheel for the title song. William Ivey Long's costumes and Brian MacDevitt's lighting were as colorful as Pask's sets.
As for Wayne Cilento's choreography, it was far better than one might have expected, given the man's spotty reputation; the dances were energetic and well focused, with just enough nods to the iconic signature moves of Bob Fosse (director-choreographer of the original production) to serve as an hommage rather than coming across as slavish imitation. Similarly, there were no major, obvious flaws in the direction of Walter Bobbie, whose track record is also far from stellar. That said, I imagine that the show would have been in even better shape by the time I saw it if, earlier on, Bobbie had been able to make stronger, wiser decisions in terms of the proposed changes to Sweet Charity's book and song stack. (As far as that goes, or went, he might have received greater support from lead producers Barry and Fran Weissler.)
In a recent New York Post article on the travails of this ill-fated production, Michael Riedel questioned the point of reviving Sweet Charity at all. He wrote that, "A handful of fine Cy Coleman tunes notwithstanding, the show is old-fashioned and second rate, and was never intended as anything more than a star vehicle for Fosse's wife, Gwen Verdon." Well, I beg to differ. Charity may be "old-fashioned" but, considering the lack of craft and talent evidenced in so many contemporary musicals, that's by no means a mark against it. As for its being "second rate," that might be true in comparison to such deathless masterpieces of musical theater as West Side Story and Carousel; but the fact remains that Sweet Charity is a wonderfully tuneful, funny, sad, skillfully constructed show that's absolutely first-rate in comparison to most of what we see on Broadway these days. For all the problems of the production that just died in Boston, it was good enough -- at least, with Charlotte d'Amboise in the lead -- that I'm truly sorry it won't make it to New York.