Review by Kathleen Campion
The very best way to see Sweet Charity is close up and personal—and that’s how they do it at the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Linney Theater. The space accommodates no more than 250; you are so close you can see a slipped bra-strap and practically hear the dancers’ heartbeats.
It’s an old story, to be sure. Informed by a 1957 Fellini film, the raft of talent that put the stage musical on its feet in 1966 was Broadway’s brain trust. It garnered nine Tony nominations. Bob Fosse choreographed a score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, Gwen Verdon starred, while Neil Simon filled in the funny bits. As a pure reconstitution of a remarkable musical, the New Group’s production, directed by Leigh Silverman and starring Sutton Foster, it is a triumph.
Fifty years ago, the world was a very different place for women. The resignation of the young women who dance—and perhaps more than dance—at the Fandango Ballroom is palpable. They tolerate the groping—and more—that go with the job. They sing “Big Spender” with a calculated chill underwriting the manufactured heat. They bolster one another with “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” but then pull on their cheesy, spangled costumes and go to work.
In the mid sixties, that may have seemed—if not less egregious—at least less considered. But, in the shadow of a pussy-grabbing POTUS, a pall falls over us. Ms. Silverman retains all that was wonderful about Sweet Charity as a heel-kicking, brassy musical. It is the grim reality of the present—that we are all about to be slammed back to those days, when misogyny was just the way it is—that gives the audience pause.
That aside, there are no dead spots in this show. As mentioned, the audience is so close to the performers you feel like you’re at dress rehearsal; you are “in the room where it happens.” You see Charity make eye contact with Nickie, Helene, Carmen, Elaine, and Betsy as they whirl by — no one slips out of character; no one calls it in.
Sutton Foster as Charity is dancing on the shoulders of giants. Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Debbie Allen and, in film, Shirley MacLaine have infused Charity with spunk and vulnerability. Foster plays Charity with a disarming klutziness. When grace is required, she delivers, dancing with precision and exuberance. However, when just walking and talking, she offers us a studied awkwardness—a girl-not-yet-owning-her-womanhood awkwardness—at once beguiling and distracting. She’s Gigi, if not virginal, she is still trembling on the brink, still hopeful.
Foster is so good at everything, one might miss her deft comedic gifts. Her clowning rivals that of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, and Allison Janney. She has that utter involvement in the absurd, underwritten with pitch-perfect timing. There is a sequence where she hangs over a clothing-rack, eating a sandwich, that blows a sexy seduction scene off the stage.
The musicians are on it, slipping the sound in and around the action. The Sweet Charity Band delivers Coleman’s music with an authenticity that had the floorboards thumping all around me. The fact that they are all women remains a rarity even fifty years later.
Joel Perez’s beautiful voice will not be denied even in a group sing, while his silky Italian movie-star character, Vittorio Vidal, juxtaposed with his crude dance hall boss, Herman, is just fun to watch.
Shuler Hensley plays Oscar. He is Charity’s last, best hope of finding a man who loves her. Hensley plays him with a neurotic madness that would put off anyone less desperate than she.
Of course the “Rich Man’s Frug” and every other dance number scream “Fosse, Fosse, Fosse” so yes, while of a period, it is certainly not dated in any pejorative sense. The choreography is ideal, exuberant and sensual, as written, though tuned up by Joshua Bergasse. It loses nothing with time any more than the last flutter of the swan gets old.
Sweet Charity – Book by Neil Simon; music by Cy Coleman; lyrics by Dorothy Fields; directed by Leigh Silverman.
WITH: Sutton Foster (Charity), Yesenia Ayala (Betsy, Panhandler, Daddy’s Assistant), Darius Barnes (Thomas, Marvin, Doorman), James Brown III (Man with Dog, Daddy’s Assistant, Barney), Asmeret Ghebremichael (Nickie), Shuler Hensley (Oscar), Sasha Hutchings (Elaine, Rosie), Donald Jones, Jr. (Ice Cream Vendor, Philip), Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Carmen, Ursula), Emily Padgett (Helene), Joel Perez (Charlie, Herman, Vittorio Vidal, Daddy Brubeck) and Cody Williams (Walter, Maitre D’, Manfred).
Designed by Derek McLane, choreography by Joshua Bergasse, costumes by Clint Ramos, lighting by Jeff Crofter and sound by Leon Rothenberg. Musicians: Georgia Stitt is the music director and keyboardist, Elana Arian is on guitar, Lizzie Hagstedt on bass, Janna Graham on drums, Alexa Tarantino on reeds, and Nioka Workman on cello.
Presented by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Manhattan. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission, through January 8th.