If your heart doesn’t break a little for Charity Hope Valentine, you might consider a transplant. As embodied in (another) career-making performance by Sutton Foster, this taxi dancer who dreams of manly rescue holds on to her wide-eyed optimism no matter how many brutish Joes kick her back to reality. There’s more than a glimmer of Giulietta Masina in Foster’s indomitable aspect, a reminder of the down-but-not-out title character of Federico Fellini’s Nights Of Cabiria.
That 1957 film was transformed a decade later by Bob Fosse, Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Neil Simon into the Broadway musical Sweet Charity as a showcase for Fosse’s suggestive choreography and as a vehicle for his muse, Gwen Verdon (and played by Shirley MacLaine in Fosse’s 1969 film).
Leigh Silverman’s tough-minded, scaled down revival of Sweet Charity nods to Verdon as well, in a performance that’s unabashedly sexy while being grittier than any of the revivals I’ve seen. This New Group production, to which Something Rotten! producer Kevin McCollum is attached, would be a fantastic choice to open the restored Hudson Theatre, recently taken over by the Ambassador Theatre Group.
The role fits Foster (the appealing star of TV Land’s Younger and a Tony winner for Anything Goes and Thoroughly Modern Millie) like a glove. Beginning, like Cabiria, with the heroine’s unexpected dunk in the water by the latest of her lover louses, Charity returns to the Fan-Dango Ballroom and the women who form her support group as she bounces from one failed romance to the next. Grim reality sets in with “Big Spender,” as the dancers strut their stuff for the raincoats on parade in the cheesy Upper Broadway haunt. A chaste interlude with an Italian movie star finds Charity further strutting as she bursts into “If They Could See Me Now.” Choreographer Joshua Bergasse here gives Sutton her best showcase since the “Show Off” number (https://youtu.be/cuGBg-iam2U) from The Drowsy Chaperone a decade ago.
Soon the story settles into Charity’s courtship by Oscar, the virginal accountant with the vocal register of a bassoon, played with magnificent shlubbiness by Shuler Hensley. Oscar too is a heatbreaker, and in his duet with Charity (“I’m The Bravest Individual”) and solo (“Sweet Charity”), Hensley knocks it out of the admittedly tiny ballpark that is the smallest house in the Signature Theatre Center’s Linney Courtyard.
But that too is one of the things making this revival exceptional. Derek McLane (sets, even while he’s busy with the upcoming NBC telecast of Hairspray Live!) and Jeff Croiter (lights) have transformed this black rectangle with only a couple of hundred seats into a frills-free, neon-glowing dive for a stripped-down chorus of just five dancers plus Charity. These practiced bodies, tittilatingly dressed by Clint Ramos, are all but in our faces much of the time, which has the odd effect of making the story that much more tough-minded without relinquishing its poignance.
I found myself watching Foster intently in the one number that has Oscar and Charity as voyeurs like us: “The Rhythm Of life,” which finds them at a kind of Greenwich Village Be-In that seems to exist purely as an excuse for some Neil Simon lampooning of downtown culture and for Bob Fosse’s dirty dancing to Coleman’s jazzy, slap-happy music (exuberantly played here by an all-female quintet). Silverman makes one significant change to the original, moving Charity’s “Where Am I Going?” number to the end. Foster makes the most of it, infusing Charity with the warmth she showed in Violet. It’s a beautiful performance in a grown-up, revelatory revival.