What a Set-Up! Holy Cow!
How did Christina Applegate measure up at the press preview of the new Sweet Charity?
The presentation begins with Walter Bobbie, the director of the Chicago revival, and the Weisslers, the producers of that hit, embracing. (Of course they do; that production has made them a lot of money.) We're told that prior to Broadway, Sweet Charity will go to Minneapolis, Chicago, and Boston. Funny, isn't it, that many brand new musicals that need extensive out-of-towns tryouts don't get them but a proven show like Sweet Charity does. In fact, when Charity was a brand new show back in 1965, it tried out in two cities: Detroit and Philadelphia. So why does this production need three? Well, for one thing, as we'll see, this isn't merely a revival but a revisal. More to the point, the three-city tour isn't so much a shake-out as it is a chance for co-producer Clear Channel Entertainment to fill its theaters in Minneapolis, Chicago, and Boston. These days, going out-of-town is more a business decision than an artistic one.
On the other hand, maybe Charity will need the time and opportunity to shake out. Bobbie says that Neil Simon is and Cy Coleman was "willing to re-examine their material." So now the show starts in the Fandango Ballroom with "Big Spender." There's a nice coincidence and irony here: As the dance hall hostesses slither on to make their entrance during the press preview, a siren is heard from a police car driving along 42nd Street, six floors below; it's as if the Fandango is being raided. Some girls are sitting on a pouf and none are standing at a barre, which is wise of choreogapher Wayne Cilento. He knows we've seen the original staging of the number ad infinitum -- in the 1966 original production, the 1969 film, the 1986 revival, and in Fosse, too. Cilento has added men to the number: "How's the wife?" one embarrassed, caught husband asks another before he sneaks inside. A young actor playing an old codger lifts his cane and slaps a girl on her caboose with it. It plays well.
Next, Christina Applegate and Denis O'Hare come out to play Neil Simon's hilarious elevator scene between Charity and Oscar. How suprising to see a microphone hooked around O'Hare's ear; we are in a rehearsal room, after all, and we're not more than eight rows deep. Interestingly, Applegate isn't seen wearing a mike, which suggests that O'Hare isn't as good at projecting as she is. This turns out not to be the case; the lady's voice is small. Just as I'm wondering why she wasn't miked, she turns around and I see a mike cord stretching from her wig all the way down her back. Hmmm -- then she should be coming across much more loudly.
Okay, the sound designer can eventually fix that, but there's a bigger problem with Applegate: At 33, she seems too young for the role. One of the big aspects of Charity's character is that time has already ticked off many opportunities that she might have had in terms of both jobs and men. Gwen Verdon looked the part when she created it at age 41; Applegate looks as if she still has a few more chances at a better career and a good relationship. On the other hand, Applegate may look much older by the time she reaches Broadway, for nothing ages a person faster than trying out a musical. Still, she seems a bit miscast, and I find myself recalling the joke that went around Broadway when she signed her contract: That she got the part because she's Mr. Applegate's daughter. (Just in case you missed it, that's a reference to another Gwen Verson musical.)
Applegate is also small in stature -- though, to be fair, the original title of the show was The Small World of Charity. But the important thing is that she's very much at ease when she plays the scene, and she sings "I'm the Bravest Individual" with confidence. Here, she displays a requisite quality for starring in a Broadway musical: She believes that she can do it. (One other note about the elevator scene at the press preview: When O'Hare collapses and Applegate gets down on all fours to comfort him, the many photographers in attendance start shooting and a dozen flashbulbs go off, making it look as if Applegate and O'Hare have been caught in some immoral act.)
Next comes "I'm a Brass Band," wherein Applegate shows that she's light on her feet, is fluid in her dance steps, and moves well. ("Moves well!" my friend Josh Ellis snorts the next day when I describe Applegate's performance to him. "Did we ever say that about Gwen Verdon -- that she 'moves well?' We used to say, 'Oh, my God, what a dancer!' " And he does have a point.) I recall Verdon being in the number from beginning to end, but here, Applegate bails out a couple of minutes into it and becomes an enthusiastic cheerleader on the sidelines, clapping her hands at the dancers' accomplishments. (Is she too fragile to do the entire number? Well, the lyric does have her sing, "I'm tissue paper on a comb.") She does eventually rejoin the number and is in it for the conclusion. By the way, while Cilento has made "Big Spender" his own, "I'm a Brass Band" owes a great deal to Fosse, right down to the banging of drumsticks in time on the floor.
Afterwards, we all repair to a nearby room to talk to the collaborators. I ask Cilento if "Charity's Soliloquy," which was dropped from the film and the '86 revival, is being restored. He assures me that it is. When he adds that neither "You Should See Yourself," Charity's opening number in the original stage show and the revival, nor "My Personal Property," her first song in the 1969 film, will be used, I get it: The show will open with "Big Spender," and after that, Charity will come in and tell us about the scene that we've always seen up till now: She went to Central Park with her beloved Charlie, who stole all of her money and pushed her into the lake. This does violate the time-honored playwriting rule that it's better to show than to tell, but on the other hand, what it finally does is give Charity a good opening number -- one of substance (the soliloquy runs almost four-and-a-half minutes) that spells out her life story and her dilemmas. In performing this difficult number while tangoing, Applegate will have ample opportunity to win over the crowd -- or to lose it.
Will Bob Fosse turn over in his grave? Many people felt that he did so nearly a decade ago, when his great work for Chicago was watered down for the glorified concert version that's still running. Considering that Neil Simon claims he's got a good ending for Charity -- which the original, the revival, and the movie didn't -- maybe this will be the sweetest period in the show's history.