Sweet Charity at the Signature Theatre
By Nancy Salz – December 20126
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Dorothy Fields
Book by Neil Simon
Direction by Leigh Silverman
Choreography by Joshua Bergasse
Scenic Design by Derek McLane
Costume Design by Clint Ramos
Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter
Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg
Music Direction by Georgia Stitt
Starring Sutton Foster, Shuler Hensley, Emily Padgett, Asmeret Ghebremichael, and Joel Perez
You can count them on one hand – the women mega-stars for whom musicals are mounted these days: Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth and Sutton Foster. No quibbles with McDonald and rarely with Chenoweth, but Sutton Foster?
Foster’s heading the current, sold-out run of The New Group’s production of Sweet Charity at the Signature Theatre. I still don’t get what all the fuss is about.
Yes, Foster looks a bit like Mary Tyler Moore in her heyday and has that same plucky, attractive energy. Her acting is convincing. As for her voice, it’s good, but she was easily out-sung by two of her female cast mates in smaller roles. Her dancing is okay at best. She does all the steps in time to the music, but she is clearly a taught rather than a born dancer. She lacks the artistry, the soul and the deep, spontaneous musicality that should be the foundation of every move. Foster was out-danced by the entire chorus.
With Gwen Verdon as Charity executing Bob Fosse’s choreography, Sweet Charity premiered as mainly a dancing show in 1966. It’s hard to imagine Foster pulling off any Fosse moves with real panache, which may be why Joshua Bergasse was engaged as choreographer. He chose not to incorporate any of Fosse’s work.
Actually, Joshua Bergasse was the main reason I plunked down nearly $200 (with fees) to see this production of Sweet Charity. Bergasse choreographed On The Town and last summer The Pirates of Penzance at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires. He is wildly inventive and a master at moving people around the stage, whether they’re dancing or simply walking. Except for one number in Sweet Charity, “Rich Man’s Frug,” I found the choreography disappointing, even ordinary, and wonder if Foster’s limited ability hampered him.
Sweet Charity, set in 1960s New York City, has a terrific score – music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields – including “Big Spender,” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” The book, based on Federico Fellini‘s Nights of Cabiria, is by Neil Simon. However instead of being a too-generous, luckless prostitute as Cabiria was in the movie, Charity Hope Valentine (Sutton Foster) is a too-generous, luckless dance hall girl for hire. She meets an Italian movie star (Joel Perez) who wines and dines her in his apartment then kisses her good-bye on the forehead when someone more attractive turns up. She even gets engaged to Oscar (Shuler Hensley), whom she met when they got stuck in an elevator. But that doesn’t work out either.
Shuler Hensley is a welcome presence in this show. Whether playing the kind shlump Oscar, or a bad guy like Jud in Oklahoma (for which he won a Tony), his talent shines. He has by far the best voice in in the show. Emily Padgett and Asmeret Ghebremichael were also outstanding as Charity’s dance hall colleagues, Helene and Nickie.
The workable, minimal scenery for the minimal stage is by Derek McLane. Clint Ramos’s costumes were fine except for Charity’s lilac-with-white-piping frumpy housedress. Foster has to make many quick costume changes, but still…
Leigh Silverman was the able director. Georgia Stitt led the six-girl band.
The Coleman and Field bouncy score is undoubtedly a main reason Sweet Charity has been revived many times around the world, including three revivals in New York. But if you haven’t been able to snag a ticket to the Sutton Foster revival, do not fret. You’re not missing all that much, and there’s sure to be another revival in the next decade somewhere in the world, hopefully with a woman who is a bonafide triple-threat in the title role.