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'Charity' wrestles with relevance

Reprinted from late editions ofyesterday's Globe.

When Christina Applegate broke her ankle and Charlotte d'Amboise stepped into her role, ''Sweet Charity" lost a TV star and gained a theater veteran. The key question about this revival, which is heading to Broadway next week, switched from ''Can Christina do it?" to ''How will Charlotte do it?"

Judging from her performance Wednesday night at the Colonial Theatre, she's doing it pretty well. So the next question is: ''Is that good enough?"

D'Amboise is a terrific dancer, and the way she throws her heart into every move suits the character of Charity, the brassy but naive dance-hall hostess who can't stop believing in love. Her singing is also strong, but it doesn't always carry a lot of emotional shading. When d'Amboise is dancing, we see Charity. When she's singing, we see an actress working hard to find her way into a new part.

She may well get there, especially with the strong support she's getting from Denis O'Hare as Oscar, the nervous nerd who wins Charity's oft-won heart. O'Hare sings funny, dances funny, is funny -- he finds ways to express Oscar's oddity in every gesture and every note. Once he appears, late in the first act, d'Amboise seems to settle a little, and she tones down some of the stridency that overtook her at the start. That harshness could be a carryover from the role she was playing when she got this call, the hard-hearted Roxie in ''Chicago." Charity is outwardly tough, too, but she has to have a sweetness at her core in order to make any sense.

Not that she -- or the genuinely bizarre musical constructed around her -- will ever make complete sense, at least to a 21st-century audience. It's hard to know how the 1966 Broadway production, directed by Bob Fosse, would feel today; certainly the movie that followed cannot play now as anything but camp. So it's not surprising that this production has trouble finding a persuasive tone. Sometimes it feels straightforward, other times like a sendup.

Sure, those big numbers -- ''Hey, Big Spender," ''If My Friends Could See Me Now," and ''The Rich Man's Frug" -- still pack a certain punch. William Ivey Long's costumes are swell, as ever; he had some fun with the feather wigs for the mannered frug dancers and the peacenik duds for ''Rhythm of Life." Scott Pask's clever sets earn a few laughs of their own, though they are often too glaringly lit by Brian MacDevitt. There are plenty of good dancers, and Kyra DaCosta, as Charity's pal Helene, adds a lovely warmth.

But what it all adds up to, ultimately, is a question that no one actor's performance can answer: ''Why revive this show, and why today?" You'd like to think that a show comes back because it can give us something new -- even if it's just a new way of looking at something old. But it's hard to know just what ''Sweet Charity," with its uneasy attitude toward its characters and its uncertain working out of their fates, has to tell us now.

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