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|
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.