Musicals, Off Broadway, New York City, Theatre Is Easy

Sutton Foster is Sweet Charity

Sweet Charity

Book by Neil Simon; Music by Cy Coleman; Lyrics by Dorothy Fields
Off Broadway, Musical Revival

Runs through 8 Jan 2017

Pershing Square Signature Center, W42nd Street NYC

Review by Shani R. Friedman 

BOTTOM LINE: Two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster brings her colossal talent back to the stage for the 50th anniversary of this classic musical.

Eleven years after it was last revived with the beleaguered and injured Christina Applegate, Sweet Charity returns with stage veteran Sutton Foster. For fans of musical theatre, Charity, with instantly recognizable tunes like "Big Spender," has become a classic, owing in no small part to its storied pedigree, which began with Federico Fellini and his original screenplay for Nights of Cabiria, the basis for the show. Then legendary choreographer Bob Fosse and actress Gwen Verdon brought it to Broadway with luminaries Neil Simon, Dorothy Fields and Cy Coleman crafting the script, lyrics and score before Fosse directed the Academy Award-nominated film.

Charity Hope Valentine, arguably the most aptly named character in theatre, is a not-quite prostitute with the proverbial heart of gold that is regularly trampled on by men. She’s a woman of her time—the Mad Men era—who doesn’t have a lot of prospects or demonstrable skills. That's why she's spent the last eight years in the crummy Fan-Dango Club as a "social consultant," as she refers to herself, earning a living getting paid to keep men company as a dance hall hostess. She, like her fellow dancers, Helene (Emily Padgett) and Nickie (Asmeret Ghebremichael), want more. The trio share the moving "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This." Their aspirations, such as to be a hat check girl at Sardi's or a receptionist with regular hours and coffee breaks, aren’t even lofty or unattainable. Yet no one leaves. For Charity, that heart keeps getting in the way. She’s gullible and naïve when it comes to the lousy men she chooses (such as Charlie, the married boyfriend who wanted a fur-lined coat in July), who mistreat and take advantage of her openness and generosity. She's taken her share of licks, but remains an optimist, joyous and trusting, the type of woman "who’s starving and gives her last nickel to charity."

As I watched the downtrodden women, I puzzled over whether Simon’s book is feminist, anti-feminist or exists somewhere outside of that question. It certainly feels anachronistic in the 21st century to see female characters so limited, and I expect it was a touch dated in the 1960s. Charity Valentine isn’t Hedda Gabler, after all. Charity finds an escape from the life through a man, via a new romance with the decent Oscar (Shuler Hensley), an accountant she meets at the 92nd Street Y when she seeks out classes to get "a little culture, a little refinement." But the hopeless romantic draws the short straw again. Not surprisingly, it's Fields and her lyrics that provide Charity, Nickie and Helene with strength and wisdom, and the possibility of a world beyond the Fan-Dango.

If your exposure to Foster has been limited to Bunheads and Younger on television, where she plays modern, intelligent, fairly wholesome types, it's quite a different experience seeing her as an almost-hooker in a very intimate space, singing and hoofing it to the point of breathlessness. I’ve only had the opportunity to enjoy her work on the small screen so it is absolutely a thrill to watch her up close, not least of all when she masterfully lifts her leg onto another’s dancer’s shoulder. In "If They Could See Me Now," one of Foster’s showstopper numbers, she dances with the hat and cane Vittorio (Joel Perez), a movie star, has given her after a chance encounter. She’s winsome and utterly sincere as Charity expresses the happiness she feels at meeting one of her romantic silver screen idols. When she sings about her failures in love and looking to the future in "Charity’s Soliloquy" and "Where Am I Going?", Charity’s yearning and hope for something more is palpable.

Emily Padgett, Sutton Foster, and Asmeret Ghebremichael in Sweet Charity. Photo by Monique Carboni.

Emily Padgett, Sutton Foster, and Asmeret Ghebremichael in Sweet Charity. Photo by Monique Carboni.

Hensley, who once played Curly in Oklahoma! on Broadway, brings a different physicality to Oscar than seen in previous runs (Denis O’Hare played the love interest in the last revival). He adds a sweetness and comedic touch to the part. As the tough and practical Helene and Nickie who provide counters to Charity’s innocence, Padgett and Ghebremichael poignantly convey the longing of women who feel trapped and, despite their cynicism, want to be loved as much as the next person. For me, the standout from the ensemble is Perez, who does a yeoman's work in three roles: as Herman, the obnoxious dance hall proprietor who reveals he’s a bit of a softie in “I Love to Cry at Weddings”; charming Italian actor Vittorio, whom Charity delights and schools on how to handle his tempestuous girlfriend; and Daddy Brubeck, the charismatic leader of the Rhythm of Life Church.

Leigh Silverman has assembled a large, ethnically diverse cast but even in a small space, the dance numbers don’t feel overstuffed or too busy. She’s kept the props and lighting changes to a minimum, but the production doesn’t feel lacking as a result. Silverman has opted not to use Fosse’s choreography, instead bringing in Joshua Bergasse, who received a Tony Award nomination for On The Town. The excellent company is featured in "Rich Man’s Frug" and "The Rhythm of Life," which are goofily retro, but energetic and great fun, thanks to Fields's lyrics and Coleman’s score. And I applaud Silverman's decision to have a live band accompany the performers.

Although Simon’s book doesn’t entirely hold up, the show is improved by a stellar lead, which it has in Foster. You’ll be dazzled by the dancing and humming the catchy songs for days.

(Sweet Charity plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street through January 8, 2017. The running time is two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission. Performances are Tuesday at 7:30; Wednesday at 2 and 7:30; Thursday and Friday at 7:30; Saturday at 2 and 8; and Sunday at 2. Tickets are $95-$175. To purchase tickets visit thenewgroup.org or call 212-279-4200.)

Sweet Charity is written by Neil Simon with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Orchestrations and Music Supervision by Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Scenic Design by Derek McLane. Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter. Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg. Costume Design by Clint Ramos. Production Stage Manager is Valerie A. Peterson.

The cast is Yesenia Ayala, Darius Barnes, James Brown III, Sutton Foster, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Shuler Hensley, Sasha Hutchings, Donald Jones, Jr., Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Emily Padgett, Joel Perez and Cody Williams.

Check out MFP's theatre partner Theasy.com for more NYC theatre reviews.

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Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036.