Leigh Silverman, director of the 50th anniversary Off-Broadway revival of Sweet Charity starring Sutton Foster, recently spoke about art being “a tool for education, revolution, and resistance.” But it’s also, she said, great for escape: “People staggered into Sweet Charity desperate for community..and to be lifted away from this reality” the weekend after the election.
How else but escapist to characterize the musical about a “dance hall hostess” named Charity Hope Valentine who is always looking for true love, but never finding it. Its book by Neil Simon, based on the screenplay “Nights of Cabiria” by Federico Fellini, is dated and improbable, with a series of comic set pieces that, in the New Group’s production at the Signature Center at least, only occasionally land. But its score by Cy Coleman holds up, especially the evergreen songs — the bluesy “Big Spender” and the brassy “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” The choreographer Joshua Bergasse (On The Town), the spot-on five-piece band, and the design team – such as Clint Ramos (Tony winner for Eclipsed) and Derek McLane (Tony winner for 33 Variations) – all work together to scale down this big Broadway musical appropriately to the intimacy of a theater with little more than 200 seats.
Best of all, the performances are terrific.
Now, few regular theatergoers would be surprised by the charmingly daffy portrayal of Charity by Sutton Foster, the beloved Broadway veteran who won a Tony Award for Anything Goes, and currently stars in TV Land’s series Younger. But the director surrounds her with a dozen-member cast replete with first-class Broadway talent. Chief among these is Shuler Hensley, who should be better known. He’s knocked people out who saw him in the Broadway revival of Oklahoma, the Apple family plays at the Public, or his amazing performance as a 600-pound man in The Whale at Playwrights Horizons. Hensley here is a credible and hilarious Oscar, a neurotic tax accountant who, late to his self-analytical discussion group at the 92nd Street Y, gets stuck in the Y’s elevator with Charity. Every scene between Hensley and Foster clicks (even the ones in which the characters are not clicking.) It seems almost unfair that Hensley is not only a persuasive actor with comic chops; he also has a wonderful voice.
Joel Perez, best-known for his many roles (mostly as hunky younger men) in Fun Home, takes on four very different parts in Sweet Charity – as Charity’s no-good date, as Charity’s boss, as an Italian movie star, and as the hippie leader of a musically-inspired religious cult (this latter, an excuse for “The Rhythm of Life,” an apparent parody that feels not just from another era but from another show.)
Emily Padgett, who has gained something like cult status for her recent stardom in two short-lived Broadway musicals, Bright Star and Side Show, and Asmeret Ghebremichael, veteran of such Broadway hits as The Book of Mormon and Spamalot, dance, sing and wise-crack wonderfully as Charity’s cynical dance hall colleagues – they’ve seen it all, done it all, and think Charity is kidding herself to think she’s not trapped like the rest of them; but they have great affection for her anyway.
That sounds somewhat like the approach to take towards Sweet Charity itself.
Sweet Charity is on stage at the Pershing Square Signature Theater
(480 W 42nd St, just East of 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10036) through January 8, 2017
Book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields
based on an original screenplay by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Plaiano
Cast: Sutton Foster, Shuler Hensley
Yesenia Ayala, Darius Barnes, James Brown III, Asmeret Ghebremichael, Sasha Hutchings, Donald Jones, Jr., Nikka Graff Lanzarone, Emily Padgett, Joel Perez, Cody Williams
Scenic Design Derek McLane Costume Design Clint Ramos Lighting Design Jeff Croiter Sound Design Leon Rothenberg Hair and Wig Design Charles G. LaPointe Make-up Design Joe Dulude III Orchestrations Mary-Mitchell Campbell Music Direction Georgia Stitt. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.