Sweet Charity is often presented as a “star vehicle”, probably because of the legacy the show has with Gwen Verdon and Shirley MacLaine, but, in fact, it is a tawdry, sad tale about loneliness and unhappiness and finding the best face to put on one’s life. Sutton Foster is a big star, but here she is subordinate to the needs of the production. Joshua Bergasse’s sexy and stimulating choreography is the true star here – and rightly so. This is a reinvention rather than a revival – an exceptional and invigorating one.
The space in The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Perishing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street is not a big one. It immediately evokes a sense of the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre or Southwark Playhouse. An intimate thrust stage where everyone is close enough to feel the motion, see the sweat, miss nothing. It is also a blank canvas upon which directorial and design visions can play out.
And boy, do they play out in Leigh Silverman’s production of Sweet Charity which is now playing there, its season having been twice extended prior to opening. Its fifty years since this musical first burst onto Broadway boasting a book by Neil Simon, lyrics from Dorothy fields and a Cy Coleman score. It won only one Tony award in that outing, for Bob Fosse’s choreography, but if, as seems likely, this production transfers to Broadway it would be entirely unsurprising for it to win a series of Tony awards.
The spare and intimate space means that scenic designer Derek McLane has little to play with. There are no revolves, no fly tower, no wings, no possibility for impressively detailed or intricate sets – instead, Derek McLane brings real ingenuity to the fore, and establishes very clearly different spaces with not much at all. Cast members bring on and off stage items that quickly evoke locations as diverse as the interior of an elevator (just brilliantly done), a swank hotel room, a subway car, a seat on a ride in a showground, and the dancefloor and dressing room area of the Fandango Club where Charity works. It’s almost magical watching something being created out of nothing.
McLane, though, does rely upon the wizardry of Jeff Croiter for his design to fly, and Croiter does not disappoint. The lighting throughout is extraordinary. Croiter uses full blackout mode carefully and brings a different sense to each scene though changes in lighting states. Colours and levels reflect the mood of the action and the personality of the characters. The use of red and blue in the Fandango Club is especially evocative, but, throughout, Croiter’s lighting enhances everything: the effulgent energy never flags. Radiant is the word.
Director Leigh Silverman has approached the task of staging Sweet Charity afresh. This is a musical with strong links to Fosse, Gwen Verdon and Shirley MacLaine and those links bring with them a clear, brassy Fosse sensibility and expectation. In Silverman’s hands, Sweet Charity is less a vehicle for a star and more a committed ensemble piece, albeit one where frequently there is a whiff of Fosse fragrance. Stylish fluidity is Silverman’s key to unlocking the musicals strengths.
Two things are vital to this: the orchestrations of Coleman’s music and the choroegraphy that animates it.
Mary-Mitchell Campbell provides inspired orchestrations which bring out the power of the melodies and which are more winsome and eager than brassy and brash. The small all-female band, led by Georgia Stitt, take the lead from the orchestrations and the music feels feminine, intoxicatingly so. The entire musical canvas reflects the journey of Charity and her perspective on life and the silly and sorry events that engulf her. It is a take that some might find radical, but it unshackles the notes and lets fresh emphasis work its own magic.
The musical sensibility of Silverman’s vision here – which is, actually, both sweet and charitable (to performers and audience) – is underlined by Joshua Bergasse’s exciting and inventive choreography. Every dancer is a crack triple threat capable of classical moves, jazz steps, virtuoso tap, and all manner of silky, sensuous and sublime steps – and Bergasse ensures that every opportunity is properly taken.
Big Spender is given a a fresh, softly softly approach which really works and allows the characters of the dancehall women, as well as their underlying feelings, to shimmy to the surface. It doesn’t hit you over the head, but it seduces you completely. Rich Man’s Frug is deliriously funny and deliciously sexy, an all-white fantasia of jerking and jiving and jaunty footwork where you cannot see everything that is happening with only one viewing – it is richly rewarding, beautifully idiosyncratic.
If My Friends Could See Me Now is exuberant, just as There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This is positive and desperate, and desperately positive. The dancing brilliantly reflects the moods of the characters. The Rhythm of Life gets a multi-cultural, multi-denominational treatment of the mind-altering substance kind; it is exhilarating to experience, funky and flighty, infused with tribal sensibilities which really work. I’m A Brass Band and I Love To Cry At Weddings are both showstopper, as they should be. There is nothing about Bergasse’s work which can be faulted here and the company respond exceptionally to the challenges. The dances push along the narrative and augment it. It’s terrific, really terrific.
Clint Ramos’ costumes are extraordinary, tacky and perfect at the same time. Simple in some ways, every member of the cast always looks exactly right, both for the narrative and the nature of the production. The pastel palette is soothing and period pitch-perfect, the clothes are tight where they need to be tight and the overall effect is cartoonish and Runyonesque (if that is possible for something steeped in the hippy, trippy 1960s). The wigs and hair design from Charles G. LaPointe is exceptionally good – Charity’s hair is a particular joy – especially because it does not draw attention to itself. Costumes and hair balance perfectly and with lights, dance moves, and score cohesively deliver Charity’s world.
Promotional literature for the production proclaims:
…Charity Hope Valentine, the sassy, diehard romantic dancehall hostess whose naivety and overeager embrace of every man she meets keeps getting her in hot water…
Enlivening this template, Sutton Foster is gloriously unbeatable as Charity. She brings fragility, hope, hilarity and despair to the table and then brings more. Her performance is devastating in its simplicity and joyfulness. At times, she seems to be almost channeling Mary Tyler Moore (and when you think about it, that’s a good thing).
Foster’s Charity is overwhelmingly sweet, as required, but she is also bruised and timid and reluctant – the accumulated shadows of her experiences with men flicker in the back of her Charity’s eyes. This gives a rich depth to her portrayal which allows her to reflect optimism in spades, but at a price. This is reflected, brilliantly, in the similarities between You Should See Yourself and Where Am I Going?, the essentially solo numbers which open and close the show.
Foster is hilarious throughout, most especially in her scene in Vittorio Vidal’s suite (yes, she puffs cigarette smoke into unlikely places) and when she enlists a serviette holder to bring the house down in the scene where Oscar proposes to her. Her dancing is impeccable – you can watch her whirl and twirl endlessly – and she sings the score with brio and charm, never missing a note and always giving full emotional value to every phrase.
In the final moments of the production, as Charity deals with her most recent brutal rejection by a man, Foster is utterly remarkable, softly and profoundly revealing Charity’s helplessness. The smile might be wide but her eyes lose their light as you watch her. The final image of an onwards and upwards Charity sears your soul – the cost of being sweet Charity is compellingly clear.
As Nickie and Helene, Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett are formidable and fabulous. Each has a zesty verve which fascinates. Ghebremichael seems at boiling point almost constantly throughout, the frustrations and anger of her life bubbling constantly. Padgett, on the other hand, is weary and beaten-down, the necessities of life being her constant concern. That said, they both find every humorous possibility the characters offer. Both performers sing and dance exceptionally well, and Baby, Dream your Dream is a wistful tonic with a hard edge: honest, resonant and beautiful. Individually, they excel; together they are dynamite.
There is excellent work too from Nikka Graff Lanzarone whose Ursula is a triumph of feminine wiles and narcissistic sureness, whose Carmen is angrily resigned to her fate, and whose turn as a door bitch in a self-help school is breathlessly, archly funny. Like Ghebremichael and Padgett, Lanzarone expresses character well through movement and voice. Stylish and inventive.
Often in productions of Sweet Charity one actor plays all of the love interests that Charity encounters. Here, Silverman takes a different but quite inspired approach. The central wooer, Oscar, is played by Shuler Hensley and several other key roles in Charity’s life (Charlie, Herman, Vittorio Vidal, Daddy Brubeck) are played by Joel Perez.
Perez is quite exceptional, a truly gifted actor and a singer with a vocal instrument of unerring beauty and rapturous tone. He is a chameleon. His first appearance, as the cad who robs Charity, is clearly defined. When he returns, as Herman, the naziesque governor of the Fangando Club, he is completely different – soiled, slimy, scary. Then, resplendently white, he turns up as movie star Vitorrio and he is sublimely classy, splendidly sexy, utterly the Italian matinee idol. He is unrecognisable as the same actor.
Then he turns up as Daddy Brubeck, a kind of Hispanic Jew LSD tripper, and he is quite different again. Each character is separately etched, individually nuanced, physically differentiated. What binds the characters is Perez’ firm and buoyant tenor voice which easily conquers Too Many Tomorrows, The Rhythm of Life and I Love To Cry At Weddings – but in every other way they are entirely different. It is a tour de force from Perez.
As Oscar, the nerdy, tiresomely puritanical Oscar, Hensley is a revelation. He is superb in every way, making Oscar a totally believable monster who shatters Charity with his elitist male perspective. Hensley mines the comedy of the role perfectly, and because he does, when Oscar breaks Charity, the pain is that much more heartfelt.
Everything about Hensley’s performance is inspired. He makes you root for the union between his Oscar and Foster’s Charity and, at the same time, he clearly makes you feel the vitriol that bubbles in Oscar’s veins. Again, this is a performance calibrated from the female perspective – and all the more welcome for that.
The ensemble are uniformly excellent, sexy and charming in every respect. Cody Williams, Yesenia Ayala and James Brown III really shine though, each superb in every minor role and outstanding in the full cast dancing set pieces.
Even if you go just to see Foster’s superb purple underwear, see this Sweet Charity. It is tremendous in absolutely every way – a triumphant, intimate, and very affecting reimagining of a classic musical. It sings in literally every way.