PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Sweet Charity: Christina Opens—and Closes the Season

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Sweet Charity: Christina Opens—and Closes the Season No ifs about it. Christina Applegate's friends can see her now, struttin' her stuff at the Al Hirschfeld in a cosmetically concealed foot brace as that unsinkable heart-of-gold doxy, Charity Hope Valentine—Sweet Charity to you and to some sourpuss critics who were compelled to display some charity to the actress in her uphill Broadway debut.
Christina Applegate; Denis O'Hare; Walter Bobbie; Janine LaManna; Kyre Da Costa; Gwenyth Paltrow & Blythe Danner; Jessica Capshaw; Tommy Tune; Rosie O'Donnell; Brian Stokes Mitchell; Scott Ellis; Carla Gugino
Christina Applegate; Denis O'Hare; Walter Bobbie; Janine LaManna; Kyre Da Costa; Gwenyth Paltrow & Blythe Danner; Jessica Capshaw; Tommy Tune; Rosie O'Donnell; Brian Stokes Mitchell; Scott Ellis; Carla Gugino Photo by Aubrey Reuben

She arrived on May 4, right on T.D. Day (Tony Deadline Day, or was it Theatre Development Day, or could it be Touchdown Day?); in any event, she sealed the season with a Cinderella kiss, adding a new ripple to mythic Broadway lore. Hers is the one about the raw kid out of the chorus—not even that (television!)—who, according to her Playbill bio, `is thrilled to be fulfilling a lifelong dream by making her Broadway debut.'

Hobbling toward the bright lines in a densely troubled show, she made a misstep with a stage lamppost in Chicago and broke her foot, and a more experienced performer (Charlotte d'Amboise) took over the part for Boston, where producers Fran and Barry Weissler (for wont of a more polite word) bailed. It was at this critical juncture that Applegate dug in her stiletto heels (heel, at this point), reportedly ran to the tomtoms to drum up more money for Weisslers and got the show back on the road to Broadway where d'Amboise kept the role warm for her until the doctors said she could go on—only 14 performances before the opening.

Whew! "Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end," as Birdie Coonan was once heard to observe. It's impossible not to see this subtext running alongside the show at hand, not to speculate about how Applegate may have used recent misfortunes to build a character of sparkplug spunk. The show and its encircling myth are quite compatible.

"I'm so glad I insisted," Applegate admitted a couple of hours after her debut when she arrived for the premiere party at Guastavino's. "Nobody told me that doesn't happen. In Hollywood, you have to stop people from pushing so hard. I just figured, `Hey, no way. You're not taking my show.' I've felt a lot of passion in my life, but I've never felt passion for something like this. I also felt a responsibility due to the fact I broke my foot and that's why we closed. I broke my foot, and that's why 200 people had their jobs taken away from them. It was really within me that I felt responsible to fight for this show."

Her fight was a bonding experience between her and the rest of the team who got a second chance because she's a girl who can say `No way.' And, of course, she wants to come back to Broadway, hopefully without so much Sturm und Drang—but, even with, she'll be up for the Broadway bait. "It was an exquisite experience. I wish I could tell everyone I know that you must do this in your lifetime. It's so fulfilling as an artist and as a human being." Her hubby, actor Jonathan Schaech, didn't exactly have his appetite for Broadway whetted by this experience. "I wouldn't want to go through what my wife went through to get up there on that," he allowed without thinking twice, "but the talent that's involved in Broadway is mind-boggling. Even before this, I was sorta blown away by that fact."

He's looking to put a little distance between his wife's adventure into theatre and his trying his own hand on the New York stage. A pilot for CBS, called "Commuters," may do the trick. 'We'll find out if it has been picked up next week. It's about three couples who travel into the city. David Arquette and Christine Keller head the cast."

Charity's leading mensch, Denis O'Hare, showed relief, and a touch of disbelief, at actually getting back on Broadway. 'You know what? There are no villains here, only heroes," he said. "Everyone is a hero. Christina is a hero. Charlotte is a hero. The producers who stepped in are heroes. I'm just glad we got to open this show here."

O'Hare's last two Broadway outings got him in the Tony running—successfully for Take Me Out, less so for Assassins—and this one will likely do the same, but where? His role of the hilariously hysterical nebbish who falls for the goldhearted Charity is the sort that straddles categories: John McMartin was Tony-nominated in the starring category for the 1966 original, and Michael Rupert won the Tony in the featured category for the 1986 revival. (Hours after the opening, the Tony Awards Administration Committee rules O'Hare would compete in the featured category.) "My biggest job is being backstage for the first 45 minutes of the show, trying not to think about it—you know what I mean? I read a lot."

Charity and his character, Oscar, meet cute at the tail end of the first act—trapped in a stalled elevator while his claustrophobia bubbles to the surface. Director Walter Bobbie has platformed O'Hare's hysteria as if it were the first-act finale song (comedically, it is). "The scene is by Neil Simon, so it's really well-written, which helped," he said. 'What we did was—Walter and Christina and I just got into a room and didn't worry about being lost. We thought `What is the reality?' The reality is: Here is a guy in a space with a pretty girl he'd like to talk to and he's loosing his mind. He wants to be cool and can't."

Janine LaManna and Kyra Da Costa, as Charity's best buds at the dance hall where they're employed for a little more than ten cents a dance, arrived late into the show, replacing Natascia Diaz and Solange Sandy on the road. 'We're definitely a family now," Da Costa declared, catching at long last a light at the end of the tunnel. "The cast that was already established just opened their arms and their hearts to us and really welcomed us, and I appreciate that. It makes the job easier to have friends on stage."

LaManna, playing the tartest of tarts with a tell-tale Eve Arden edge, rates the Tony once-over she didn't get her last time out with the Weisslers—as Seussical's fluttery, feathery Gertrude McFuzz. "I'd love it to happen," she said. "If it doesn't, I have the same attitude I had with Seussical: If I have the support of my community, that's my Tony."

Bobbie who turned [Tony-winning] director for the Weisslers' Chicago, was last at the Hirschfeld (then Martin Beck) as an actor, playing Nicely Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls, and he hired his Harry the Horse (a.k.a. Ernie Sabella) to run Charity's dance hall.

He also plucked Timothy Edward Smith from the chorus and gave him nine parts to play when he's not kicking up his heels. "When the show started rehearsing, Walter Bobbie gave all the ensemble men roles to play," Smith said. "The second day we rehearsed, he gave all the roles to me. I've always been in the chorus, and I've enjoyed every show. But this one elevated my part. I get to talk a lot." (He works hard and inventively at this.)

The Official Christina Applegate Fan Club seemed to be in attendance for the opening, including a couple of co-stars from her feature film, View From the Top (Gwenyth Paltrow and Jessica Capshaw). Paltrow came with Mom (a radiant Blythe Danner). Applegate's mom, Nancy Priddy, was in from L.A. for the event, sitting in the second row (B 103), laughing and crying and kvelling and crying and crying.

Tommy Tune, who had a show-stopping lamppost encounter with the Weisslers before (the abandoned Busker Alley), seemed to be fleeing a bad-vibe reminder at intermission. But Rosie O'Donnell, a former Pink Lady for the Weisslers' Grease, went the distance.

The star of Kiss Me Kate and Man of La Mancha, the last two shows to play the Martin Beck, Brian Stokes Mitchell, was checking out the theatre's new look and show, as was his La Mancha co-star Stephen Bogardus, who said he was bound for Pittsburgh to do A Little Night Music and then to San Francisco for a concert version of Of Thee I Sing.

Director Scott Ellis, whose Twelve Angry Men turned into the sleeper of the season, said his last time at the Martin Beck was on roller skates—in The Rink with Liza and Chita. Like Twelve Angry Men, Carla Gugino is rating some end-of season award-pondering for her harrowing perforMMance in After the Fall—and, for that, she was grateful. "We ran so early in the season I would have thought people would have forgotten about it," said the actress, who found a hole in her film schedule so she could cheer on Applegate.

As if there weren't enough angels in attendance of Sweet Charity, Guastavino's was garnished liberally with young, buff, barechested Winged Things. I went up to the one who looked like John Phillip Law in Barbarella and asked why. "I'm the guardian of the agava plant, which is used to make tequilla," he informed me. Gran Centenario Tequila hosted the opening-night party, and there was a "celebrity mixologist" in the kitchen whipping up such cocktail concoctions as "Big Spender" and "Sweet Charity" and "Angel's Passion," all of which seemed to go down well with the first-nighters.

I asked Winged Thing what he did when he wasn't an angel. He said, "I'm always an angel." Lest it be forgot, at the bottom of the Playbill's credit page was written in caps "SWEET CHARITY IS LOVINGLY DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF CY COLEMAN." Coleman, who supplied great music to Dorothy Fields' great lyrics, died at age 75 just as this production was getting into gear. John Miller, the show's music coordinator, has written a lovely salute to Coleman in the summer edition of Show People out in a month.

The cast gives their opening night curtain call
The cast gives their opening night curtain call Photo by Aubrey Reuben