Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: Meh Charity

By Michael Block 

You may hate to play the "compare and contrast" game but sometimes you just have to. You always have to applaud artists for examining a text and interpreting it in a drastically innovative manner. But sometimes it becomes so unrecognizable that it turns into a new show. And that certainly happens when a libretto is adjusted to create a new narrative. In The New Group's darker revival of Sweet Charity, the titular character is down on her luck in the love department. But this production gets tickled by that fickle finger of fate. And if you're looking for anything resembling the Sweet Charity you know and love, then that finger will be wagging in your face to taunt you.
With book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Sweet Charity is the swirling musical comedy about Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer at the Fandango Ballroom, as her trust in love and hope of a new life continues to crumble. When fate starts to go her way, Charity not only gets a man, but also the potential a life better than this. You can tell this was going to be a different Charity simply by the show art. In comparing revivals, the 2005 Christina Applegate-led revival was bright and colorful. This one is dark, dark, dark! Director Leigh Silverman took a drastic turn in her interpretation. Silverman avoided the typical musical theater approach, infusing a methodology that makes more sense when staging a straight play. Her scene work was profound. But this is, at the end of the day, musical comedy. The inconsistencies from libretto to score were blaring. It's almost as if Silverman wanted to do a play version but settled for the inclusion of music. The brazen change of moving “Where Am I Going” to the end of the play altered Charity's narrative distinctly. It brings out a poignant commentary: Silverman clearly was interested in exploring turning Sweet Charity into something slightly unfamiliar. But you simply can’t fault her for consistency. There’s a natural physical comedy that enriches this story. It needed more. The few bits that were present had the audience in stitches. That’s when this show worked.
photo by Monique Carboni
The pared-down production certainly shattered that expectation of big budget bravado. The minimalistic approach pulled focus into the little details, whether good, bad, or indifferent. Silverman and her team, filled to the brim with an exuberant amount of talent, depended on realism far too much. The only member of the team to rightly match the text with their bursts of color was lighting designer Jeff Croiter. His looks captured the essence of Simon's bubbly text and Fields and Coleman's splashy score. If you wanted color, unfortunately Clint Ramos' costumes didn't deliver. To match Silverman's direction, Ramos provided a muted color pallet. Though the all-white looks for the Frug dancers was the grand highlight of his design. The dreariness was a major bummer, but nothing was more disappointing than the ill-fitting frock Ramos put on Sutton Foster. If ever reality played a role in the design, it was when Foster danced her way through the show. Her dress would fly up, exposing the matching violet underwear. If it took you out of the show, you’re not alone. Derek McLane’s scenic design was sleek and simple and included some period-inspired realistic elements. Namely, the carnival ride. Silverman was able to have her company move the pieces well and she utilized McLane’s design to the max. It was one of the only things that was simple and effective. When you think of Sweet Charity, you can't help but think of Bob Fosse. No matter what, you can’t escape the grand influence he has on the show. Choreographer Joshua Bergasse clearly knew the origin and the inspirations, but chose a new direction to explore. Rather than pay homage to Fosse, Bergasse opted for storytelling through choreography. There were certainly shades of Fosse in the grossly truncated rendition of "Rich Man's Frug," but those Fosse fans in the audeince will be deeply disappointed. Sure, “If My Friends Could See Me Now” showcased the powerhouse dancer that Sutton Foster is, but you forget about the number when you compare it to the wasted opportunities Bergasse presented throughout. Namely the iconic “Big Spender.” The number lacked the razzle dazzle, instead offered a conveyer belt of merchandise where the girls, pinned with a number, sit in a chair, walk in a circle, and come into the audience a bit. This was the moment where Sweet Charity truly fell apart. It’s enriching to look up in the band rafters to see the entire orchestra comprised of all females, led by music director Georgia Stitt. But it wasn’t nearly enough to cover up Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s dinky orchestrations.
On the surface, casting Sutton Foster as Charity Hope Valentine is an odd casting choice. But there’s no denying that Sutton Foster made the character her own for a Charity like no other. Playing up the hopeful pushover, her Charity was a bit of a goofy rag doll without the spunk and tenacity others in the role have brought. But what Foster did manage to do was bring a level of newfound empathy. Alongside Foster, Shuler Hensley captured the sad sack Oscar with great ease, though genuine chemistry proved just how unusual this pairing was. Rather than spread the wealth in casting, this revival used an everyman to play the male roles, including Herman, Vittorio Vidal, and Daddy. Utility player Joel Perez has a wealth of range, crafting a unique identity for each. It just called attention to the peculiarities of having a singular actor in these varied parts. Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett provided a glimmer of hope as Nicki and Helene respectively. Nikka Graff Lanzarone epitomized the essence of Ursula just in the way she strutted around on stage.
If you’re a purist, this is not the production for you. If you’re looking for a little grit in your musical theater comedy, this may be the Sweet Charity you’ve been waiting for. Overall, it was a little too lukewarm for my liking.