By Harry Forbes
As you may have heard, this is not your grandmother’s “Sweet Charity.” Which is to say it’s not Bob Fosse’s “Sweet Charity,” but rather a refreshingly revisionist production about the dance hall hostess with the heart of gold vainly searching for love.
The Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musical gave the legendary Gwen Verdon her last significant stage role, and she received accolades for her touching and charismatic turn. Fosse directed the subsequent screen adaptation with Shirley MacLaine competently assuming the title role of Charity Hope Valentine (the name says it all), though she was judged not quite in the same league as Verdon.
On this occasion, we have the super talented Sutton Foster directed by Leigh Silverman who guided Foster through her paces in the fine 2014 Roundabout revival of Jeanine Tesori’s ‘Violet.”
If you’re willing to accept a new somewhat darker vision, you’ll be richly rewarded by this revival.
Arguably the most off-putting aspect is Charity’s appearance on this occasion: a blond Raggedy Ann mop of hair, a mini-dress, and short white boots. In some respects, though, her wig recalls the great Giulietta Masina’s appearance in Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” the source of the musical as adapted by Neil Simon, though the Charity character was a full-out street walker in that one.
Yet again, the great Foster has reinvented herself. There’s hardly a trace of her Liza role on her hit series “Younger,” nor any of her recent stage parts for that matter, including her sexy turn in Encores’ “The Wild Party.”
Simon’s text has been slightly adapted, and there’s been some re-ordering of the songs (“Where Am I Going?” now poignantly coming at the end) – intelligent changes all, which fit Silverman's contemporary vision – and Charity seems rather more aggressive than previously. And yet, she still manages to be an endearing innocent, and Foster, fine actress that she is, never makes a false move right up to the heartbreaking final moments. Her dancing to Joshua Bergasse’s newly minted choreography is also terrific.
Stocky Shuler Hensley cuts quite a different figure than the usual nebbishy Oscars, but his playing of the phobic accountant is superb, and his claustrophobic elevator scene is masterfully done. His vocal moments (“I’m the Bravest Individual” and “Sweet Charity”) are highpoints, thanks to his rich baritone. Also superb is Joel Perez who plays multiple major roles, including Italian heartthrob Vittorio Vidal, club manager Herman, and downtown evangelist Daddy Brubeck. His “Too Many Tomorrows,” “The Rhythm of Life,” and “I Love to Cry at Weddings” are wondrously differentiated.
As Charity’s girlfriends and cohorts in the Fandango Ballroom, Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett are excellent, if perhaps a tad less maternal towards Charity than usually played. They join Foster for “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” and harmonize most winningly in “Baby, Dream Your Dream.”
Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s reduced orchestrations, as played by the all-girl band led by Georgia Stittt, almost make you forget the brassy originals.
Derek McLane’s economic but clever settings, Clint Ramos’ sharp costumes, and Jeff Croiter’s astute lighting contribute mightily to the production’s successful facelift.
The audience gave my performance a wildly enthusiastic ovation at the end. I hope the production can find a longer life after its limited run here.
(The New Group, The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.; (212) 279-4200 or www.thenewgroup.org; through January 8)
Photo Credit: Monique CarboniPrint this post