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Sweet Charity

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 20, 2016

Sutton Foster, Shuler Hensley and the cast
Photo by Monique Carboni

Poor Charity Hope Valentine: so lovely, so talented, so awash in an identity crisis. Her natural, perpetual optimism is forever driving her, but the cold facts of the world into which she's fallen keep her in place no matter how she tries to ascend to something better or more profound. There doesn't seem to be a way she can reconcile the harsh reality of the life of a taxi dancer at the Fandango Ballroom (you know, a dime-a-dance girl, wink, wink) with her candy-colored fantasies of domestic respectability. Charity, alas, is not the only one so afflicted. The New Group revival of the musical about her, Sweet Charity, that just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center with Sutton Foster as its star is suffering from the same malady of indecision.

On one level, this is understandable. Since its premiere in 1966, Sweet Charity has always uneasily walked that thin line of respectability. Bob Fosse, at his most auteur, based it on Federico Fellini's 1957 film Nights of Cabiria, which is one of the modern cinema's quintessential examples of the "prostitute with a heart of gold" archetype given flesh-and-blood form. But because the mainstream was still a bit more conservative then, and because it was to star his wife and muse, the great Gwen Verdon, Neil Simon's book, Dorothy Fields's ultra-witty lyrics, and Cy Coleman's spectacular, city-throb music had to sort of (ahem) dance around the issue of Charity's profession and potential extracurricular activities.

This led to a hit and a popular triumph for Fosse and his headlining lady, but it also resulted in an odd, occasionally schizophrenic show that's been difficult to get right since. (Shirley MacLaine took on the 1969 movie version, and Debbie Allen and Christina Applegate Main Stem revivals in 1986 and 2005, all to varying degrees of failure.) Verdon was, bless her (and marvel at her on the cast recording), just too unique: unendingly lovable, sexy but not remotely slutty, a stole of hopefulness around a core of hopelessness, simultaneously down and dirty and virginally unspoiled (er, sort of)—a collection of contradictions not easily mimicked. And Charity needs every single one she can get, and then some, if she's going to believably dance through all the heartbreak she must endure.

Although a big star herself of a more contemporary vintage, with two Tony Awards (for Anything Goes and Thoroughly Modern Millie) and other impressive credits under her belt, Foster doesn't project the vitals of a Charity type of woman. She's pure determination of the "I want this and so I'm going to make it happen" variety. That's absolutely right for many of her above-the-title parts, including Violet and Shrek, but she has too many sharp edges. The actress playing Charity must impress upon you that she's at the emotional mercy of an endless string of domineering men, from a gold-digger who pushes her in the lake in Central Park to Fandango Ballroom manager Herman to fraternizing Italian film idol Vittorio Vidal to the perfectly milquetoast Oscar Lindquist she meets in an elevator at the 92nd Street Y and mistakes for someone with Real Husband Potential.

Sutton Foster with Emily Padgett
and Asmeret Ghebremichael
Photo by Monique Carboni

Foster, however, is, as usual, a force of nature—costume designer Clint Ramos can put her in a pastel-purple one-piece and Charles G. LaPointe can put a dowdy bobbed wig on her head all they want, and you won't automatically accept she's not the type to shove each of them aside and blaze her own trail. Charity's Fandango coworkers are more submissively downscale, with the likes of best friends Nickie (Asmeret Ghebremichael) and Helene (Emily Padgett) particularly beaten down with best-I-can-do syndrome. They clearly lack the intestinal fortitude to make the longed-for futures of "three fat kids" and "three and one half rooms / with a walk-in closet" (as they sing in "Baby, Dream Your Dream") come true. This Charity doesn't.

There's no questioning Foster's show-biz bona fides, which are put to dizzyingly good use in the solo hat-and-cane showstopper "If My Friends Could See Me Now," when Vittorio (Joel Perez) leaves her alone in his glamorous apartment, and "I'm a Brass Band," when she finally gives in to loving Oscar (Shuler Hensley) and wants all of New York to know it. But if Joshua Bergasse keeps her and her cast mates busy, in numbers like these and the sultry "Big Spender" and the "I Love to Cry at Weddings" soft-shoe celebration, and vitally reconceives the crazy upper-crust send-up "Rich Man's Frug" on his own angular terms, overall he hasn't established a consistent vernacular the way Fosse did; too often, his choreography looks like a bunch of unrelated bits pasted together.

Much of Leigh Silverman's production feels like that, though. She wants to have it both ways, but differently than the book and score do. She's ground down and tarted up the Fandango girls, ostensibly to temper the writers' cartoony Manhattan with Fellini's grit, but can't fit the pieces together. In trying to better legitimize the Charity-Oscar romance, she's done so well that its ultimate conclusion no longer follows from what comes before. Worst of all, in fooling with the ending (like so many directors before her), she's neutered the title character's defining optimism: Moving "Where Am I Going?" to the finale spot (it's supposed to be in the middle of Act II) ends the evening so crushed into the pavement that you want to drink yourself into oblivion—what on Earth must Charity be going through?

The ending has always been a conundrum, because it's genuinely difficult to believe that a woman like this could go on. But go on she must. Otherwise, what's the point of any of it? Sweet Charity isn't realistic and it isn't meant to be—it's a fairy tale and must be treated like one, otherwise it doesn't make a lick of sense. (It barely does anyway; despite a few good gags, the book is far from Simon's finest work.) Silverman can be better than this (she's proved it many times, including with Foster's Violet at Encores! and Roundabout) and let's hope that, if the rumored Broadway transfer plans are true (staged in three-quarters-thrust style, it looks like it was conceived to fit into Circle in the Square), Silverman goes further to prove it.

Another big issue is Mary-Mitchell Campbell's orchestrations, which give Coleman's scintillating score a dull, uninterested, drunken-club vibe that's not right for the Technicolor atmosphere. No, you can't do Ralph Burns's incomparable original charts Off-Broadway, but really, not a single brass instrument, even though it's all but commanded by a song title? At least the all-female band, led by Georgia Stitt, does everything it can with what little it's been given. That little includes the overture, by the way, which has been completely cut, and starts the evening off with a splat rather than a bang.

Other elements are, thankfully, better. Derek McLane's set is spare but surprise-packed, and swank when it needs to be. Ramos's colorful costumes and Jeff Croiter's splashy lights are spot on. And the rest of the compact cast is excellent. Particular standouts are a warmly sympathetic Ghebremichael, Perez (if more for his hearty Herman than his overextended Vittorio), and Hensley, who's an almost perfect Oscar, blending his conservative and hypochondriac tendencies into a portrayal of immense personal confliction and serenely effective comedy.

So good is Hensley, in fact, that he makes the often disposable song for Oscar and Charity at the end of Act I, "I'm the Bravest Individual," into an indispensable centerpiece that anchors a mounting that otherwise is prone to drift off course. It helps, of course, that it's the one number that's an unerring fit for Foster's performing persona: You never doubt for a second that this Charity is a woman who can persuade her spine to turn into pure steel. The problem with this Sweet Charity is that she persuades you of that, too, while the show that surrounds her spends all its time trying to convince you of something entirely different.

Sweet Charity
Through January 8, 2017
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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