The return of "Sweet Charity" last night at the Minskoff is a blessing, and Debbie Allen is a joy forever. Whether dancing on air, singing brightly, or acting with a saucy appeal, this small wonder dazzles from start to finish.
The musical, 20 years old, is set back in the mid-60s, and necessarily so in view of two of its numbers, the first-act period dance ("Rich Man's Frug") and the hippie church tune "Rhythm of Life." But it shines afresh in this production, in spite of the over-amplification required in this large, inhospitable theater.
Adorning Neil Simon's book, an adaptation of the Fellini film "Nights of Cabiria" that has grown just a bit stale around the edges, is Cy Coleman's most exuberant score, fitted out with smart lyrics by the late Dorothy Fields. The classic dancehall hostess ensemble number "Big Spender" is as pulsating and amusing as ever, and who could possibly resist Charity's (Allen's) "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "I'm a Brass Band," or the beguiling "Baby, Dream Your Dream" sung by hostesses Bebe Neuwirth and Allison Williams?
Bob Fosse has recreated his original staging and dances, and they constitute some of the finest work he has done. In addition to keeping the star spinning endlessly, or so it seems, through scene after scene, he has organized the ensemble into a variety of vibrant routines, all superbly executed.
Besides the enchanting Allen, who in an earlier time would be returning season after season in new shows, there is an exceedingly attractive performance by Michael Rupert as Charity's shy, neurotic almost-spouse. For "Sweet Charity" is a rueful story as well as a funny, sentimental and, as the mood takes it, brash one. But while Charity is a loser from the time she's fished out of a Central Park lake until she climbs out of it herself at the end, she's an eternally hopeful gamine.
Neuwirth is entertaining as the brassy, wise-cracking dance-hall vet named Nickie, and Mark Jacoby fills the bill as the hammy Italian movie star who picks up the astonished and star-struck Charity and, reunited with his flashy blonde companion (Carrie Nygren), gives vent to the florid ballad "Too Many Tomorrows."
Robert Randolph has again attended to the scenery and lighting, opting mainly for geometrically framed backgrounds in a variety of hues, with a minimum of props aside from the film star's plush pad. Patricia Zipprodt has run up a striking array of costumes, though Charity's short black dress focuses attention on her throughout, except for a couple of minor changes. Ralph Burns' original orchestrations retain their zest, and Fred Werner is once more the musical director.
It's great to have this ebullient musical comedy back on Broadway, and it's doubly great to find the bewitching half-pint called Debbie Allen at the heart of it.
What can I tell you? Memory plays strange tricks. Looking at sweet Debbie Allen in the all new, mostly old, production of the Bob Fosse musical Sweet Charity, which opened last night at the Minskoff Theater, I could have sworn that the show had been made more stylized over the two decades since its premiere.
The scenery by Robert Randolph, with its trapezoid opening at the back of the stage and its vestigial views of street, park, and dancehall alike, looked different. Only the costumes by Patricia Zipprodt looked the same.
What can I tell you? Memory plays strange tricks. The scenery, I understand, is virtually identical to what it was 20 years ago. The costumes, on the other hand, are new, Miss Zipprodt's handsomely flamboyant styles replacing the original designs, which were by the late Irene Sharaff.
This apart, it seems that the show is pretty much as was - although the version of the title song, sung on the Coney Island ferris wheel, is the one substituted into the unsuccessful movie version rather than the one originally in the show.
Did my memory tell me that? No, the press agent did.
What my memory didn't lie about was the image of Gwen Verdon - her look, her strut, her plaintive chirpiness, her (excuse the shorthand) Felliniesque-Piaf poignancy as Charity. Subsequently I had seen both Juliet Prowse and Helen Gallagher do it - but Charity began at home, and for Verdon, Charity was home plate.
The dance style was and is embodied in her body. Her successors can only imitate - and when you see Miss Allen, very much with her own dizzy sense of guileless mischief, richocheting through the multiple climaxes of If My Friends Could See Me Now, you are conscious of Verdon's ghost, as a kind of inner truth to the performance.
Does this matter? Cannot Miss Allen be enjoyed, and all reluctant ghosts be put to rest? Yes, and no. You see if Mr. Fosse, the show's conceiver and begetter, choreographer, and director, had first envisaged Miss Allen as Charity rather than Miss Verdon - it would have been a different show.
The result is that Miss Allen - brilliant and lovely as she is, and demonstrating her talents all over the stage - seems to be performing under a gauze veil.
You will be missing Miss Verdon, even if you never saw her and have no idea what it is you are missing.
Mr. Fosse's error was in not completely rebuilding and reshaping the role on Miss Allen, and letting her give her own, new interpretation.
The show remains a lively one - particularly while regarding the skeleton-strewn desert of the contemporary Broadway musical.
The story taken by Fosse from Nights of Cabiria, Fellini's movie about an adorable, adoring whore with a heart of gold and a trust of tin, was bowdlerized for Broadway, so the whore becomes a dime-a-dance taxi-dancer at the Fan-Dango Ballroom.
The book was adroitly written by Neil Simon, and the music by Cy Coleman and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields are from Broadway's top drawer, or at least the first one down.
Fosse's staging remains electric, even if there is sometimes electric static.
His opening image of the girls lined up in a cattle-line at the ballroom, singing with detached and professional sensuality Coleman's hit Big Spender, would rank in any anthology of the American musical's platinum moments.
And everything he gave Miss Verdon, which she has now passed on to Miss Allen, is quite extraordinary - some of the most riveting dance images the Broadway musical has ever achieved.
Here Fosse is virtually working on the creative level of a Robbins. Elsewhere he lapses into easy spectaculars, such as the unjustly celebrated Rich Man's Frug, which appeals through oil-slicked rehearsed and highly mechanized puppet movements.
This is to choreography what the Swingle Singers are to music. But very popular. And, in its way, clever. As are the Swingle Singers.
One of the hallmarks of a Fosse show is the exquisiteness of its casting; everyone from star to chorus has been handpicked, everyone, even in the ensemble, emerges as a particular concept.
The delightful Miss Allen - her beautifully funny face making a perpetual semaphore of hope, her body radiating faith - does everything she can, and the rest provide the kind of rock-solid support that Fosse can so expertly plan and build.
As her two chief Fan-Dango sidekicks, Bebe Neuwirth and Allison Williams are delicately soured and shop-soiled as hostesses with the leastest, while Mark Jacoby, as the Italian movie star, and Michael Rupert as the naive innocent, representing the men on Charity's poor list, are equally and charmingly at one with the show.
So Sweet Charity is back in town. Is she still a Charity case worthy of your contributions? Well, big spender, look over this season's competition, and you may well decide to spend a little time with this one.
Certainly the music is cheerful, the lyrics are clever, the book is engaging, the staging is deft and imaginative, and while the girl wouldn't make Chaplin cry, she is cute, and she does have a sucker heart as big as a frying pan.
All Sweet Charity has lost in the past 20 years is Gwen Verdon. Hopefully, only for the faithful few will that prove too much.
Can six or seven knockout song-and-dance turns transform an also-ran Broadway musical into a classic? Of course not, but just try telling that to the audiences who are about to have some indecent fun at the revival of ''Sweet Charity.'' As choreographed by Bob Fosse and performed by the dynamic Debbie Allen and company, the numbers in this 1966 musical adaptation of Federico Fellini's ''Nights of Cabiria'' tear away from its dreary book with centrifugal force. By the late hour when the star leads a crack battalion of red-and-gold troops through the torrential kicks and leaps of ''I'm a Brass Band,'' hard-core addicts of old-time Broadway might be tempted to parade in the aisles, if only the Minskoff weren't a modern Broadway house without any aisles.
The preceding numbers, though separated by listless scenes, are often as electric, showing off Mr. Fosse's range of choreographic razzle-dazzlement with encyclopedic ardor. ''If My Friends Could See Me Now,'' winningly set forth by Miss Allen, is the archetypal top-hat-and-cane solo, refurbished in cleverness by the delayed introduction of each of the dancer's props. ''There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This'' is a lovingly vulgar variation on Jerome Robbins's torrid ''America'' in ''West Side Story,'' and ''I Love to Cry at Weddings,'' which begins as a Frank Loesser-style comic chorale, breaks into the sprightliest of soft shoes. Mr. Fosse's fondness for sending his dancers to the edge of the proscenium is exploited in ''Rhythm of Life,'' his eye for elegantly stylized parody in the snooty, white-gloved calisthenics of ''Rich Man's Frug.''
The signature dance of ''Sweet Charity,'' famously heralded by the raunchy downbeat provided by the composer Cy Coleman, is ''Big Spender'' - in which the painted hostesses of a New York tango palace joylessly entice their customers to a ''good time'' from behind the long railing that borders their nightly encampment. The bleak yet affectionate deadpan humor of the staging is worthy of Reginald Marsh drawings of Depression honky-tonks. Even more impressive is that moment when the women suddenly come together to move as a single, finger-snapping organism through the blue nocturnal light: the various bodies form a syncopated Rube Goldberg contraption, a pulsating sculpture of human neon advertising soulless sex. This is a glimpse of hell - lewd, fleshy, funny - as only an inspired student of burlesque like Mr. Fosse could imagine it.
None of these routines would deliver if they weren't outfitted with galvanizing dancers and music. Mr. Fosse's corps is first-rate, and the choreography has been drilled to that precise point where skyrocketing limbs seem to melt into the ice-cream-colored skies of Robert Randolph's sets and lighting. No less attention has been paid to the cinematic staging transitions, in which the dancers, often seen in silhouette and crowned by flashing title cards, assume characteristic Fosse postures (knees turned in, fingers spread out) to give ''Sweet Charity'' the look of silent-film comedy. Mr. Coleman's accompanying, rousing show tunes are trumpeted by the belting voices, percussion-minded orchestrations (by Ralph Burns) and swinging band (led by Fred Werner) that this kind of musical requires.
Be warned that the kind of musical in question is the tired-businessman's entertainment, mid-1960's subdivision. With its mildly off-color jokes, laughably spurious song cues, jolly subway straphangers and rolling cartfuls of living-room scenery, the form seems as dated as the miniskirts and hoop earrings of Patricia Zipprodt's tongue-in-cheek period costumes. Yet it says a lot about how the Broadway musical has deteriorated - as gloomily exemplified by Mr. Fosse's own current ''Big Deal'' - that ''Sweet Charity,'' an average musical in its day, seems to have appreciated in value now. This is attributable to the decline of the competition, not to an improvement in the show's quality.
While Mr. Coleman has modestly modernized the sound of a couple of songs, Neil Simon's hapless script could still use major surgery. Maybe the author himself might choose to forget this book, which starts off flat and reaches oblivion by the fumbled bittersweet conclusion. In remaking Fellini's Roman prostitute into a Manhattan taxi dancer, Mr. Simon created a love-starved heroine (named Charity Hope Valentine, no less) of such sentimentalized masochism that she makes a doormat seem like the Rock of Gibraltar. Only Dorothy Fields's delightful lyrics lavish some humor and compassion on the stereotyped ''girls and chicks'' of the evening. The lyricist, who died in 1974, sardonically imagined that dance-hall hostesses would aspire to a bourgeois respectability in which they eat ''frozen peaches and cream'' and wear ''a copy of a copy of a copy of a Dior.''
Neither Miss Fields's nor Mr. Simon's words benefit much from the acting, which is mostly broad. Bebe Neuwirth and Allison Williams, as the heroine's hardened sidekicks, are better seen dancing than heard wisecracking; Mark Jacoby brings a robust voice but little else to the role of an Italian film star. Far superior is Michael Rupert, whose kindly charm redeems Charity's Mr. Right, a milquetoast in a gray-flannel suit whom she meets in a stalled elevator at the 92d Street Y. Lee Wilkof is another happy exception to the general comic pushiness, summoning up the Runyonesque spirit of Stubby Kaye as the brash but good-hearted Fan-Dango Ballroom proprietor.
Miss Allen may have spent a bit too much time in television since her memorable Anita in the 1980 ''West Side Story''; her joking, too, can be overstated, and she doesn't find the pathos in the Fields lyric for ''Where Am I Going.'' But if she somewhat lacks the vulnerability of the original Charity, Gwen Verdon (who assisted on this production), Miss Allen is almost eerie in her re-creation of her predecessor's Chaplinesque gait and sparkling gymnastics. Let Mr. Fosse place his sizzling star before his phalanx of dancers, and a vastly imperfect musical ignites, as if by spontaneous combustion, into a rollicking show.