The largest achievement in The New Group’s revival of Sweet Charity (and it is a production brimming with achievements) is that the title character, Charity Hope Valentine, a woman whose every thought and action lives up to the sugar-encrusted naiveté of her name, is somehow entirely believable. Charity, in the text, is a woman who tosses herself from man to man hoping that each one will be the one to rescue her from her position as a dance hall hostess at the Fandango Ballroom, a taxi dance nightclub in which men pay for the privilege to dance with available women. Usually, Charity’s readiness to believe what she wants to believe instead of what is actually happening is played comically; even her friends Nickie and Helene repeatedly call her stupid or a half-wit and Charity admits she is a simpleton, which is part of her charm. In this revival, however, Charity is not stupid, she is just someone who has been told she is so often that she accepts this as truth. She is not completely blind to the ways in which she has been mistreated by a slew of men, she just thinks it’s the only way to get out of the Fandango.
As Charity, Sutton Foster crafts a performance that bares not the soul, but the heart. Foster is a two-time Tony Award winner and brings with her the pedigree and the complications of that distinction. The onus is placed on Foster to deliver a star’s performance; people are coming to see Sutton Foster. It is difficult, then, for an actor to disappear into a role with this amount of attention placed on her shoulders. Although the space is so intimate that she was, at times, less than a foot away from me, the star persona of Sutton Foster immediately evaporated, even as her entrance applause kept going. In its place was Charity Hope Valentine, a character so richly drawn and fully inhabited, it could have been Charity herself. Theatre is built on artifice, but is most successful when that artifice creates a new reality. That is what occurs in the first moments of this production: there is a seamless meld of actor and character that grabs the audience and does not let go. Foster’s empathy with Charity is clear and she plays her like every action is the only action and every word is gospel. Her Charity is so lovable it’s insane that she is so unlucky in love. The events that transpire, then, are viewed with a new bent. Charity wants love so desperately, it becomes her downfall.
Directed by Leigh Silverman, this production is fiercely feminist. Charity’s fellow taxi dancers at the Fandango Ballroom are strong and autonomous; they prowl through the ballroom looking for prey. The relationship between Charity and her two “best friends”, Nickie (Asmeret Ghebremichael) and Helene (Emily Padgett), is of particular interest in this production. It seems, throughout, like Nickie and Helene don’t really like Charity. They think she’s simple and they don’t understand why she isn’t as world-weary and jaded as they are. They sing almost an entire song mocking her behind her back, before revealing to each other that they want exactly what she does. This dichotomy is compounded by their deep sadness when Charity evetually leaves the Fandango for good and both Nickie and Helene will clearly miss her a great deal. Silverman has highlighted this contradiction through subtle choices in staging and helping the relationships feel lived-in. There is an apparent flicker of regret that they may have mistreated Charity, that they may have underestimated how much she meant to them.
Charity eventually acquires a fiancé, Oscar (Shuler Hensley), who has to grapple with her lack of “purity,” but, in this production, it’s not Charity’s problem, it’s Oscar’s. Sweet Charity comes from the midst of the sexual revolution and its heroine does not feel restrained by the mores to which Oscar clings. Silverman uses Oscar’s eventual rejection as Charity’s awakening. Moving the song “Where Am I Going?” to the end of the musical and attaching a brief reprise of the opening number “You Should See Yourself”, Silverman has allowed the ending to be introspective and has facilitated Charity’s decision to change her modus operandi. Where once the musical ended with Charity shrugging off the painful dissolution of her engagement and performing a “who cares” dance, it now ends with Charity, alone, staring at her choices, probably for the first time. It is heartbreaking and powerful. The book has been lightly finessed in this way throughout, giving Charity an arc instead of plopping her down exactly where she began. The result is relatable in a modern context.
Joshua Bergasse, one of the most original, inventive choreographers currently working in musical theatre, has created a new physical vocabulary that pays minor homage to the iconic Bob Fosse dances, but does not feel like a re-staging of them at any moment. The new orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell pare down the original orchestration to a six-person band, but maintain the power of the music, though some of the delicious ‘60s funk is lost. The all-female band, under the direction of Georgia Stitt, brings Cy Coleman’s music bursting out from the very beginning and they never sound less than spectacular. It is the kind of exciting, soul-infiltrating music performed so well that it makes your body thrum along with it in your seat. Likewise, the singing is uniformly excellent, beginning with Foster’s precise, clear tone (and added high notes) that are a welcome change from Charitys of the past, and continuing through each member of the company. The diction is sharp and articulated and Dorothy Fields’ genius lyrics are heard exceptionally.
The lighting by Jeff Croiter is vital to establishing and maintaining the mood of the production. The illumination is an extension of Charity’s psyche, moving from darkness to light as her situation improves, infusing the various spaces of her habitation with style and atmosphere. Clint Ramos’ costumes walk a line between period chic and a contemporary repurposing of mod fashion. Of particular mention is the sequined “uniforms” worn by the dance hall hostesses, which cast glittering reflections on their exposed skin. Derek McLane’s unit set evokes the Fandango Ballroom by way of the Kit Kat Klub, with sparse additions to delineate space, wisely letting the set place the focus on the actors and the music in this intimate production.
The New Group’s Sweet Charity is already a hit and has been extended three times based on Sutton Foster’s star power alone. What is a thrilling bonus, however, is that Foster’s performance exceeds the buzz and the production is smart and contemporary. If this Sweet Charity has a life beyond its off-Broadway run, it will be a gift to the thousands of other people who will get to experience it.