The real reason to see the new Sweet Charity, its third major New York revival, is for Sutton Foster’s bravura performance. Aside from nightclub singer Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, Foster has usually played innocent, clean-cut young women caught up in unusual situations. Here she again plays to type – but with a difference: Charity Hope Valentine works as a taxi dancer in a New York dance hall, a sleazy environment. However, she keeps her infectious innocence and her indomitable spirit despite one unfortunate romantic encounter after the other due to her gullibility. Under Leigh Silverman’s direction, Foster may just be the most convincing actress to ever play Charity.
With new choreography by Joshua Bergasse that avoids the iconic Bob Fosse vocabulary of both the original production and the first NY revival, the musical can now be evaluated on its own terms: the story of a holy innocent who retains her faith despite nothing but setbacks. Neil Simon’s book in this version seems closer to the source material, the Felllini/Pinelli/Plaiano screenplay for Nights of Cabiria.
Charity works as a taxi dancer in the Fan Dango Ballroom but always believes that “There Is Gotta Be Something Better than This.” When we meet her in Central Park, she is thrown over by her boyfriend Charlie from whom she has been expecting a marriage proposal. She meets Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal who turns out to still be in love with his ex, Ursula.
Seeking some cultural enlightenment at the 92nd Street Y, she meets nerdy, inexperienced and shy tax accountant Oscar Lindquist. When they get stuck in an elevator, she helps him over his claustrophobia and he gratefully decides to go on seeing her. However, she refrains from telling him what she does for a living which becomes a deal breaker when he finds out. By rearranging the song, “Where Am I Going?”, and placing it last, Sweet Charity becomes the gritty, cynical musical it always had the potential of being.
Is there anything Sutton Foster can’t do? Having played the plucky small-town girl Millie who comes to NYC to make good, Cole Porter’s sophisticated night club singer Reno Sweeney, and the dominatrix in the Off Broadway play Trust, she now makes Charity Hope Valentine her own. Wearing her heart on her sleeve, she convinces us that she is really as naïve and trusting as Charity’s actions would suggest. Foster sings, dances, acts, and holds the stage all by herself in the solo number “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” with top hat and cane. Her innocence is heart breaking, but her spirit goes on forever.
The multiracial casting makes the show seem more about New York than previous versions. For the first time on stage, the Italian film star Vittorio Vidal is played by an actor with Latin heritage and the wry Joel Perez makes him quite sexy and believable. In the interesting double and triple casting, the versatile Perez also plays Charity’s hard-hearted boss Herman, and the irrepressible Daddy Brubeck of The Rhythm of Life Church. While Tony Award winner Shuler Hensley’s Oscar is decidedly introverted and bashful, his style seems at odds with that of the show.
Charity’s best friends at the Fan Dango, Helene and Nickie, played by the excellent Emily Padgett and Asmeret Ghebremichael respectively, offer all of the sarcastic pessimism to which Charity is immune. They are memorable together in the duet, “Baby Dream Your Dream.” Classy Nikka Graff Lanzarone is a tough cookie as Vittorio’s tempestuous girlfriend Ursula, as well as Carmen, the new young thing at the dance hall, among others. The abbreviated male dance chorus in the form of Darius Barnes, James Brown III and Donald Jones, Jr. give able support, and also appear in a myriad of roles.
The fast-paced choreography by Bergasse peoples the stage even with the small cast in such crowd-pleasing large-scale Coleman numbers like “Big Spender,” “Rich Man’s Frug,” The Rhythm of Life,” “I’m a Brass Band,” and “I Love to Cry at Weddings.” Derek McLane’s unit set with its red drapery surrounding the theater and backed by a brick wall works surprisingly well for the entire show. The colorful costumes by Clint Ramos take us back to the 1960’s when the show first opened. The subtle lighting by Jeff Croiter and the equally low-key sound design by Leon Rothenberg remain unobtrusive throughout the show. Georgia Stitt is responsible for the foot-tapping music direction of the all-women’s band. While one would not think that Sweet Charity would work as a small scale, small cast musical, Leigh Silverman’s remarkable production shows us how it can be done.
Sweet Charity (through January 8, 2017)
The New Group
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.ticketcentral.com
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission