With a book by Neil Simon, based on Federico Fellini's classic film Nights of Cabiria, and a score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, the 1966 musical follows the ever-optimistic dance-hall hostess Charity as she experiences a series of heartbreaks. Directly after the overture, Ringwald skips onto the stage with a giggle and shrill voice reminiscent of a flummoxed Mary Tyler Moore. Both she and the character are brimming with life, and neither loses her enthusiasm during the show; indeed, Ringwald's performance lacks any hint of insecurity. Whether contending with an orange stretch sofa or funneling cigar smoke into a garment bag, Ringwald is like a little girl playing in the basement. There's a youthfulness to her Charity that's truly enchanting.
But Sweet Charity is not just a comedy; it is a musical. Though Ringwald never actually misses a beat, she sometimes sings off-key, and the result is not pleasant. Further, the orchestra seems to tiptoe around her in order to stay below her soft voice; and the tempos of some of the show's major numbers, including the usually rousing "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," have been slowed down to a crawl.
Meanwhile, Wayne Cilento has provided limited choreography for Ringwald -- and also for the rest of the cast, so Ringwald's lack of dancing ability doesn't stick out as much as it would otherwise. Of course, this is a huge issue; Sweet Charity is above all a dance musical, one that the great Bob Fosse helped create for his then-wife, Gwen Verdon.
Cilento, who worked with Fosse during his lifetime, seems to be in a quandary here. In numbers like "Big Spender" and "Rich Man's Frug," the performers work very hard for an effect that should appear effortless. Ironically, the choreographic highlight of the show is "I'm A Brass Band," because the dancers separate from Ringwald and are finally let loose. The problem is that this should be one of Charity's showcase numbers.
The production has two huge assets over and above Ringwald's magnetism. One is Guy Adkins as Charity's square suitor, Oscar Lindquist; he has the agility and flexibility of a slinky lizard, and he moves like there's no gravity in the elevator scene that ends Act I, earning the show's biggest laughs. Adkins has a slight singing voice, but since Oscar's songs are not meant to bring down the house, this is a minor distraction.
Scott Pask's sets -- including a claustrophobic moving elevator, a sordid ballroom, Aztec drawings that look like the artist was on LSD, and a Mexican fast food restaurant with sombrero chairs -- are the most impressive aspect of the show. The designer fabulously captures the Big Apple in the swinging '60s. But not much else swings in this highly problematic production.