Broadway's golden girl, Sutton Foster, has become Neil Simon's refugee of the heart, Charity Hope Valentine. And all the reasons some critics felt disappointed with The New Group's approach to Simon's fifty-year-old phenom, Sweet Charity, are reasons I admire it.
Scaled back, toned down and set in 3/4-round, small-theater intimacy that finds jaded dance hall girls and their clientele looming over the first few audience rows, this Sweet Charity feels like a musical for the sobering times we're suddenly living in. You surely expected fun, laughs, good times only to get this bucket of cold water thrown in your face.
I came for the brilliant Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields tunes that, decades ago, took up permanent residence in my brain--"Big Spender," "If My Friends Could See Me Now," "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This," "Baby, Dream Your Dream" and, especially as later socked home by Streisand, "Where Am I Going?" Even with the poignant re-positioning of one of those songs, they hit the mark again as rendered by Georgia Stitt's all-women, five-member band and director Leigh Silverman's sturdy, versatile, multicultural cast.
I'm a downtown gal, much more accustomed to close-up performance than being set back behind an invisible screen with action unfolding at a far remove. Sitting in the 200-seat arrangement, I liked being able to see what was in these characters' eyes--the dead or dying souls, particularly--and how hard the actors worked for this show. I felt privileged to witness a top-of-her-game performance from Foster--my first time--who owns every single twisty complexity of her character and her show.
Unlike some of her co-workers, Charity maintains moral lines she won't cross. Yet, in her ever-hopeful quest and desperation for love, she's easy pickings for exploitative men. Yet, in the right situation, she can show a crafty, even tough side. Yet, she breaks just like a little girl, shielding that quirky, sparkly grin and lively, hungry, intelligent eyes. And yet. And yet. Foster--in some mind-boggling integration of Carol Burnett and Jane Fonda happening right before our eyes--manages to master every bit of this. I came late to fandom, but I now adore her and would follow her to any stage.
As panicky Oscar, Shuler Hensley is so viscerally good--and adorably hilarious--in the stuck-elevator scene that he began to make me feel claustrophobic. (Okay, maybe the Linney Theatre really is a little small...). I also enjoyed the smooth subtleties in Joel Perez's work as movie star Vittorio Vidal but liked him even more when, as the usually loutish dance hall owner Herman, he suddenly reveals how much he loves to cry at weddings.
Sweet Charity leaves Herman, and the rest of us, with something to cry about all right. It feels unexpected, unimaginable, all wrong and...yeah...familiar.
Sweet Charity's run has been extended through January 8. Get information and tickets here.
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street, Manhattan
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