December 14, 2016

"Sweet Charity" Adds Bitter to Its Sweet

The pop culture magazine Entertainment Weekly made Sutton Foster's TV show "Younger" its top pick of the week and even though I've not seen the show, I'm not surprised. Foster is a joy box of talent and never more so than in The New Group's revival of Sweet Charity which is running in Signature Theater's Romulus Linney Courtyard space through Jan. 8.

Sweet Charity is based on Federico Fellini's film "Nights of Cabiria," which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1957. Bob Fosse, with the help of Neil Simon (who wrote the book) and Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields (who did the score,) turned the film into a vehicle for Fosse's then-wife Gwen Verdon, changing Fellini's tale about a downtrodden Italian prostitute name Cabiria into a musical about a Times Square taxi dancer optimistically named Charity Hope Valentine.

That original 1966 production was nominated for eight Tonys (losing out to Man of La Mancha for the top prize but picking up the choreography award for Fosse). It went on to play 608 performances, was turned into a movie starring Shirley MacLaine and has been revived twice on Broadway.

Like the movie, the musical opens with Charity being pushed into a lake by a caddish boyfriend who then steals her purse and sets back her dream that she'll be able to leave the dance hall business and settle down into the ordinary life of being a wife and mother.

Charity's quest for a better life takes her into the home of a famous film star, a hippie church and eventually into a chance encounter with a sad-sack named Oscar who just might be her Mr. Right. 

Throughout are marvelous Coleman-Fields songs such as "Big Spender," "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "Rich Man's Frug," which are played in this production by a six-member all-female band and, as always, offer plenty of opportunities for show-stopping dance numbers.

So any production of Sweet Charity needs a leading lady who can sing, dance, perform physical comedy and do it all while projecting a believable vulnerability. Foster, now 41 and with two Tonys behind her, delivers on all accounts.

My theatergoing buddy Bill, who saw the original, said he missed Verdon's unique gamine-like quality. But Foster's trademark pluckiness and impressive stamina (she's on almost every minute of the show's two hours and 20 minute running time, spending much of that time hoofing Joshua Bergasse's Fosse-inspired dance routines) seemed just right to me and deserving of all the praise she's been getting (click here to read an interview with her).

The rest of the show impressed me less. With the notable exception of Shuler Hensley whose work as the schlubby Oscar is as rich and poignant as Foster's. The scenes between them rank high among this theater season's true delights.

But perhaps in an effort to return the show to its Fellini roots, director Leigh Silverman has tried to darken Sweet Charity. The dance hall gals are grubbier than they usually are. The plaintive ballad "Where Am I Going" has been moved from the middle of the second act to the end in this production.

But the darkening is hard to do when you've got a script laced with Neil Simon one-liners and the innate razzle dazzle that Fosse embedded in all his work. It's also harder these days to be entertained by watching a woman get dumped on over and over again.

Silverman has also streamlined Fosse's original 30-member cast to an ensemble of 12, which puts an extra strain on the performers. The young actor Joel Perez, the father's boyfriend in Fun Home, takes on four key roles that were played by four different actors in the original. And as fine an actor and singer as Perez is, he's understandably better at some than at others.

The director and her creative team have also had to find a way to stage the show in the Linney's small playing space. Silverman does that by having the audience surround the stage on three sides, which creates an intimate experience (most of us are unlikely to see Foster this close up again unless invited to a dinner party at her house) but it also allows audience members to see how hard the performers are working.

There's been talk of moving the production to Broadway and the producer Kevin McCollum was there the night Bill and I saw the show. I'm certainly not going to presume to tell McCollum, whose credits range from Avenue Q to Something Rotten, what to do but if he does move Sweet Charity, I hope he finds a way to make the production as delicious as its star.

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