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First-Nighter: London's Sweet Charity Sufficiently Sweet

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London--They say you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, but some people get close--maybe as close as making a cotton purse. These days, the clever fabric manufacturers able to do whatever they want with a proven musical comedy are the folks at the Menier Chocolate Factory, who've just moved the latest click in their small south-of-Thames theater to the West End.

Succés d'estime and d'box-office is Sweet Charity, which Bob Fosse, Dorothy Fields, Cy Coleman and Neil Simon ran up in 1966 for the incomparable Gwen Verdon. Those adept theater craftspersons were so accomplished at their individual tasks--director-choreographer Fosse, songwriters Fields and Coleman and multiple-Tony-winning leading-lady Verdon, to be specific--that the result looked and sounded a great deal better than it actually was then. Tweaked here and there since and given a few different endings, it doesn't really look and sound any better now.

So it's nice to report that the local contingent responsible for reviving the musical--adapted from Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria with Giulietta Masina in the title role--has made something almost consistently entertaining of the piece. This, despite it's often witless and haphazard libretto. What pulls it through are, still, the songs Fields and Coleman wrote, including the sexy-as-hell "Big Spender," the hip-as-heaven "Rhythm of Life," the swoony "Baby, Dream Your Dream," the propulsive "Somewhere Better than This" and the knees-up "I'm a Brass Band."

Also responsible for the fresh look and feel is the cast, led by Tamsin Outhwaite, directed by Matthew White and choreographed by Stephen Mear--Mear, who sometimes hews to Fosse's signature eccentric movements and sometimes deviates creatively from them. (His "Big Spender" is a departure from the familiar dance-bar poses; his "Rich Man's Frug" is far more frug-y; his "If They Could See Me Now" and 'I'm a Brass Band" are respectful tips of the bowler to Fosse and Verdon.)

Good for Outhwaite and that forceful voice she has, the engaging manner and the lithe and long-legged body in Matthew Wright's cute costumes. She's also got a sufficient amount of the wistfully loopy innocence that enabled Masina and Verdon to conquer a role that, without those qualities, could make Charity a great big downer.

Outhwaite is helped enormously by Mark Umbers as the three men in her life--nasty Charlie, suave Vittorio Vidal and timid as a churchmouse Oscar Lindquist. Also flanking her for those dance-hall numbers are Josefina Gabrielle and Tiffany Graves, each as hard-edged as Charity isn't but each also convinced that, as the song says, there's gotta be something better than this. Leading the ensemble through "The Rhythm of Life" as Daddy Bruebeck in a wig that looks as if it's been taxied over from the recently-debuted "Hair" revival is Paul J Medford. The spirit is definitely moving him.

Indeed, Medford's routine is so slickly staged that the audience barely seems to notice it's been shoehorned into a narrative otherwise chockablock with shoehorns. It's well-known show-biz lore that Fosse wrote the tuner's first draft and quickly realized he'd better call someone in to improve it. Whereupon Simon--"Doc" Simon, to his intimates and lesser intimates--joined the team to commit some reworking.

Not, however, with much inspiration. Charity Hope Valentine is a Manhattan tango-palace fixture with little schooling and even less luck. What she does have is the unquenched need to live up to her middle name. So she recovers from being pushed into a Central Park lake by a boy friend only to go on to spending the night in a screen Lothario's closet while he makes love to his fiery Italian girlfriend. She endures another lengthy stretch on a stalled elevator with timid Mr. Lindquist and--but why go on? The incidents Fosse and Simon linked together are as random as the numbered balls dropped from a lottery tumbler. Making matters worse are the jokes stapled on those events. They're as stalled as the elevator.

Good thing Outhwaite and company are on hand to lend whatever sheen they can, which isn't to say this production will follow other Menier Chocolate Factory undertakings to Broadway--Sunday in the Park With George, A Little Night Music and, most recently, La Cage Aux Folles. (Maybe the only reason the Menier's Little Shop of Horrors didn't cross the Atlantic is that it followed too closely on the heels of a recent B'way re-visit.)

Those treatments that were imported--two still on the Great White Way, both Tony-nominated, started out with more solid foundations and, truth to say, somewhat more stylish interpretations than this one, where the usually reliable Tim Shortall's sets are serviceable flashy but no more than that.

Yes, as the song says, there's gotta be something better than this. Yet, it's sweet enough to keep the ticket buyers satisfied.