Sweet Charity, the 1966 musical by Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Neil Simon, is a tragedy with laugh lines. In a story loosely based on Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Charity Hope Valentine is a dancehall hostess who lobs herself from one wrong man to the next. The men lob back; at least a couple of them throw her into a lake.
But Charity, a cockeyed optimist, is stuck like a dope with a thing called hope and she can’t get it out of her heart. Or her bed. Is it Prince Charming, this damsel needs or intensive behavioral therapy? The New Group’s stripped-down revival, directed by Leigh Silverman (Well, Violet) and starring the resplendent Sutton Foster (Younger, Anything Goes), often movingly suggests the dark side to Charity’s perpetual sunniness.
Wearing a wig that suggests an electrocuted shag cut, Foster whirls around the stage in a purple shift dress and white go-go boots, singing about love and heartbreak with an eye-blinding smile that never leaves her face. Her Charity is dynamic, maybe even manic, and at least a little freaked out by the fickle fingers of fate that fling her from one dud to the next. But if this good-time girl ever allowed herself to stop for a second, she might realize these good times are actually pretty bad. So, under Joshua Bergasse’s energetic choreography, she frugs on until she meets Oscar (Shuler Hensley), a claustrophobic fuddy-duddy who just might be her knight in wrinkled acrylic.
The material doesn’t hold up especially well. The sexual politics are obviously dated and so is Simon’s awkward vernacular. A scene set at a hepcat church is particularly puzzling. The plot is noodly and digressive, but then again that mirrors the heroine and it’s part of her charm. The Coleman and Fields songs are still pretty good, with this production making much of Baby, Dream Your Dream and I’m a Brass Band.
Silverman’s interventions are few, but welcome. She has hired an all-female band, reordered a few of the songs, and de-emphasized the sensuality of the dance hall and its girls, while pointing up the camaraderie among the women who work there. Big Spender is still an angry number, just as in the original, but the mechanized sexiness of the Bob Fosse choreography has been replaced with something looser and more realistic. Similarly, we see the bra straps beneath the sequined teddies, the wig caps under the bouffants. The principal men, many of them played by Joel Perez, aren’t glamorous either and Hensley doesn’t try to mask Oscar’s creepiness. The ending is more downbeat than some, though it offers some promise of change.
And how bleak can a piece really be with the smile and voice and legs of Sutton Foster vibrating at its center? The Linney Theatre and the Signature is an intimate space and she all but overwhelms it with that strapping mezzo soprano and indomitable talent. “Where am I going?” Charity asks in the final song. It’s a fair question. But the answer as concerns Foster is clear: anywhere she wants.