`Sweet Charity' still winning hearts in traditional ways

Sweet Charity Musical comedy by Neil Simon (book), Cy Coleman (music), Dorothy Fields (lyrics). Based on screenplay by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano. Directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Starring Debbie Allen. Twenty years after her initial round of romance and rejection, Charity Hope Valentine is back in town, fighting a loser's odds and winning the heart of the audience. Revising the Italian movie ``Nights of Cabiria'' to suit their own designs, playwright Neil Simon, composer Cy Coleman, and lyricist Dorothy Fields fashioned a pop musical comedy in the Broadway tradition. Revived now at the Minskoff Theatre for the first time since its 1966 debut, ``Sweet Charity'' proves nothing if not durable. It's still a sassy, flashy, bold, and brassy blend of song-and-dance spectacle and comic sentimentality.

Debbie Allen, whose long run on TV's ``Fame'' is but one of many credits, has been cast as the ever-hopeful Charity, the role made memorable by Gwen Verdon. (Miss Verdon has been importantly involved in helping prepare the present production.) A first-rate singing dancer and comedienne, Miss Allen compensates with innocent spunkiness what she may lack in vulnerability.

With Mark Jacoby as an amusingly hammy Italian matinee idol, the star makes Charity's ascent to glamourous high life a riot of comic shenanigans, topped off, of course, by ``If My Friends Could See Me Now.'' For contrast, the show's songwriters have provided the downbeat ``There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This'' and ``Baby Dream Your Dreams'' for Charity and two fellow dance-hall hostesses at the Fan-Dango Ballroom and Charity's bewildered second-act ``Where Am I Going.''

``Sweet Charity'' still loses some momentum in Act II as the heroine's big romance builds up for its foredoomed letdown. But the performance itself never flags, even when the plot strands Charity and faint-hearted Oscar (Michael Rupert) in a stuck elevator or the gondola of a stalled Coney Island Ferris wheel. And there are always the Bob Fosse choreographic creations to dazzle the eye: numbers like the sardonic ``Big Spender,'' the antic ``Rich Man's Frug,'' the rock-gospel ``Rhythm of Life,'' ``I'm a Brass Band'' for drum majorette Charity and troops, and ``I Love to Cry at Weddings'' for a comic finale.

The boisterous Broadway extravaganza receives an enthusiastically energetic performance from a cast that includes Bebe Neuwirth, Allison Williams, Lee Wilkof, Carrie Nygren, Celia Tackaberry, and Irving Allen Lee. The revival has been spectacularly designed and lighted by Robert Randolph and supplied with trunkfuls of 1960s costumes by Patricia Zipprodt. With Ralph Burns's somewhat revised orchestrations, the musical treatment remains faithful to Mr. Coleman's score. Fred Werner is the musical director.

All things considered, ``Sweet Charity'' has cause for a good deal more than hope on its belated second time around. Mummenschanz `The New Show' With Andres Bossard, Floriana Frassetto, Bernie Schurch.

Anyone who thought the creators of ``Mummenschanz'' had run out of creations at the time of their last New York engagement understimated the inventive powers of these extraordinary Swiss-based mimes. They have returned for an appearance at the Joyce Theater, scheduled to run through May 25. ``The New Show,'' as it is subtitled, introduces delighted audiences to a whole new collection -- or should it be menagerie? -- of creatures great and small.

The Mummenschanz troupe occupies a world suspended tantalizingly between the abstract and the literal. Tangible forms start out as one thing and metamorphose into something quite different. A writhing mass of striped tentacles resembles an octopus trying to emulate a zebra. Are those massive quadrupeds elephants, Stonehenge come to life, or merely assemblages of wire and fabric?

Geometric shapes appear from nowhere to assemble and reassemble themselves. A ribbon of light dances a solo. Silhouetted limbs defy anatomical laws. Balloon shapes swell to enormous dimensions until one of them nearly fills the stage.

Mummenschanz have more uses for foam rubber and plastic, and more ways of tying themselves in knots, than most of us spectators could possibly imagine. They are always a jump or a leap ahead of us. Just as they lead us to expect one thing, they pull a fast switch and delight us with another. Except when they emerge briefly in their black leotards, the threesome -- Andres Bossard, Floriana Frassetto, and Bernie Schurch -- disappear into their complicated disguises.

The ingenious nature of the creations themselves is enhanced by the imagination with which they are lighted by Beverly Emmons. Only with the play of light does the play of movement achieve its effect. And except for an occasional spot of color, this is a black-and-white spectacle. The props are not entirely abstract. A suitcase serves as a person's head in several sequences, surrealistically opening to disgorge an array of applicable foam-rubber cosmetics. But a giant pair of hands draw the curtains to begin the show.

Writing in ``Du'' magazine of Zurich, Peter K. Wehrli commented: ``Mummenschanz hail the emancipation of things. . . . It is . . . this progressing metamorphosis of their forms that leads the spectator and the mime to new associations on all levels. . . . The mime humors the things which he gives life to . . . .'' Orchards Seven American playwrights present stories by Chekhov. Directed by Robert Falls.

New York is currently being visited by the itinerant Acting Company in a program of short plays more or less traceable to seven short stories by Anton Chekhov.

According to a program note by John Houseman, producing artistic director: ``The idea was not simply to adapt or dramatize the stories, but to use them as a cue for the creation of short theatrical pieces to be produced by the Company as part of its repertory season.''

The results, on view at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, are mixed. The experiment comes off best in Wendy Wasserstein's ``The Man in a Case.'' Miss Wasserstein preserves a Chekhovian flavor while taking her own approach to the rueful little tale about a stuffy classics professor (Brian Reddy) who finds he can't cope with his affectionately free-spirited fianc'ee (Mariangela Pino).

David Mamet converts ``Vint'' into an amusing sketch about bureaucratic life after hours.

Otherwise, Chekhov has a pretty thin time of it. John Guare turns ``Joke'' into ``The Talking Dog,'' a wan and awkward playlet about love among the contemporary hang glider set.

Maria Irene Fornes treats ``Drowning'' as a drab cartoon about unrequited adoration. ``A Dopey Fairy Tale,'' which Michael Weller concedes is based ``very loosely'' on ``The Skit,'' is a bit of self-conscious silliness in which a baker's son wins a princess.

Samm-Art Williams has made ``Eve of the Trial'' into a vulgar farce abut a fugitive Russian bigamist who runs afoul of a hanging judge in Louisiana just after the Bolshevik Revolution. Spalding Gray fantasizes ``The Witch'' into ``Rivkala's Ring,'' a windy word-scape, effectively recited by Aled Davies.

The production was directed by Robert Falls, with scenery by Adrianne Lobel, costumes by Laura Crow, and lighting by Paul Gallo.

The Chekhov program continues through May 4. On May 10, ``Ten by Tennessee'' will introduce 10 one-act plays by Tennessee Williams (in two groups of five plays each), to continue at the Lucille Lortel through June 14.

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