The New Group, uncharacteristically presenting a musical revival this season, rips a page out of the Menier Chocolate Factory playbook by taking a blast from the past, stripping it down and searching for deeper subtext. In SWEET CHARITY, first produced on Broadway in 1966 and directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse, it’s found mixed success.
There’s plenty of room for more dark in the musical comedy about Charity Hope Valentine, who works at the seedy Fandango Club as a taxi dancer, with the proverbial heart of gold, looking for love, starting, obviously, in the wrong place. The original source material was Federico Fellini’s 1957 somewhat sordid, neo-realist drama NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, where the title character is explicitly a prostitute.
This revival, safely directed by Leigh Silverman, however, doesn’t stray too much from the breezy book by Neil Simon (legendary, too) to unearth much drama. The libretto is quintessential musical comedy with melodramatic ballast (much akin to the adaptation of The Apartment into PROMISES, PROMISES). The casting of two-time Tony Award-winning musical actress Sutton Foster reinforces the musical comedy. She plays Charity with more aw-shucks, All-American girl-next-door pluck than neurotic grit.
By contemporary measure, Act I is especially bookish, almost clunky, until Oscar, played perfectly by Shuler Hensley, an ordinary slob with whom Charity falls in love, shows up. Foster and company are just fine at playing their parts, but Hensley - who won a Tony and Olivier for his role as Jud in the National Theater’s OKLAHOMA! years ago – carries with him a distinctive verisimilitude from the moment he walks on stage.
The real star of SWEET CHARITY is the wonderful score, chock-a-block full of popular show tunes, with lyrics by Dorothy Fields and music by Cy Coleman (legends, both, too). The songs are an instantly recognizable and hummable crop: “Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, “I’m a Brass Band” and “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”. The freshest, by dint of its intimate melody, in the hands of the pitch-perfect Hensley, is Oscar’s love ballad “Sweet Charity” set imaginatively by Silverman on the Ferris wheel at Coney Island.
Orchestrations by the six member band are mostly adequate, but a little thin when it comes to strings, which are needed for Charity’s famous ballad “Where Am I Going?” Stretching for the existential, Silverman has moved it from the middle of the second act to the finale. It’s a piercing, stirring melody, but as full-throated as Sutton is, it begs for fuller orchestration.
The usually inventive choreographer Joshua Bergasse here misses finding a dance style that fits the story. To his credit, he eschews Fosse’s signature moves (first made famous in the breakthrough “Big Spender” number in the original) to try something original. At times, it seems he’s channeling early Michael Bennett: the “Turkey Lurkey Time” number from PROMISES comes to mind. Derek McLane’s scenic design effectively evokes a cheap strip joint, Jeff Croiter’s lighting predictably uses red a lot, and Clint Ramos’ costumes have an anytime 1960s look.