Sweet Charity

  • Our critic's rating:
    December 1, 2016
    Review by:
    Kathleen Campion

    Review by Kathleen Campion
    30 December 2016

    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.

    (Kathleen Campion)

    "As compellingly portrayed by Sutton Foster, in an archetype-shattering performance, the title character of the 1966 musical 'Sweet Charity' has never before seemed so hopeless. Oh, sure, she’s still smiley and goofy and bouncy in the New Group production that opened on Sunday night at the Pershing Square Signature Center. She sings, she tap dances, she leads a fantasy parade in her own honor. But from the beginning of this willfully wan, small-scale revival, directed by Leigh Silverman, Charity seems plagued by a vague awareness that becoming a doormat for men was not a good career choice. And that no matter what course her life takes, men aren’t going to change and neither, God help her, is she."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Even with great tunes by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields like “Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” Charity’s grimmer than usual end startles. More like, Sour Charity."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

    "If this revival has a future, it should fill out to meet its ambitions. Foster is giving a big performance, and she deserves a production mounted to scale."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    "This is not the typical brassy production. It marches to a subtler beat. Equally entertaining, it cuts deep with a poignantly resonant message of empowerment and, yes, hope."
    Roma Torre for NY1

    "Another winning demonstration of why Sutton Foster is classed among musical theater's finest."
    David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter

    "With Sutton Foster in the title role of “Sweet Charity,” we now know that even big, beautiful, corn-fed girls from the American heartland can be fragile Fellini waifs."
    Marilyn Stasio for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - Time Out - NY1 - Hollywood Reporter - Variety