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BWW Review: Leigh Silverman and Sutton Foster Discover Fresh Nuances In Intimate SWEET CHARITY

Ever since it opened in 1966 as the Broadway production that made the Palace Theatre go legit, the final scene of Neil Simon (book), Dorothy Fields (lyrics) and Cy Coleman's (music) hyper-swinging Sweet Charity has been a trouble spot.

BWW Review: Leigh Silverman and Sutton Foster Discover Fresh Nuances In Intimate SWEET CHARITY
Sutton Foster, Shuler Hensley and Company
(Photo: Monique Carboni)

It was director and choreographer Bob Fosse who envisioned the Fellini film "Nights of Cabiria," where Giulietta Masina evoked a Charlie Chaplinesque quality as a Roman prostitute, as a vehicle for Gwen Verdon. Building on the Chaplin theme, Verdon played a dance hall hostess looking for a good man to love her. Though continually knocked down by life, she always manages to retain her optimism long enough to merrily dance through the streets of New York, just as carefree as The Little Tramp kicking up his heels doing his patented funny walk.

Not to give anything away, but the original ending scripted by Simon was a gag that took a sarcastic jab at the lead character's faith in dreams coming true. Something a bit softer was devised for the musical's film version and numerous variations have been tinkered with in major productions.

But right now, in The New Group's intimate, small-cast mounting of the 50-year-old musical, director Leigh Silverman absolutely nails it. No spoilers here, but one of Charity's solos has been repositioned, with the full company joining in, followed by a brief reprise of another song. The new ending sends home the message that this isn't just the story of some quirky young woman with bad luck in romance, but a representation of every New Yorker who has been made to feel lonely and without direction in this crazy town, with Charity coming to the realization that she must put more faith in the way she sees herself than to fret about the way others may see her.

It works beautifully and allows the top-notch evening of musical comedy that precedes to finish with a heartwarming glow.

The New Group has promoted this as a darker, more feminist take on the material than what is usually done, but there's no evidence of that at the Pershing Square Signature Center's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. Sure, Derek McLane's set, which has the audience on three sides of the stage, replaces glitz with exposed brick, and there's more realism than flashiness in the performances, but this is simply a case of a strong director doing an excellent job with some primo material.

Neil Simon's book is full of the kind of smart, urban wit that made his name a comedy genre. Cy Coleman's music easily glides from cool jazz to Broadway brass and while Dorothy Fields may not have created the expressions "if my friends could see me now" and "hey, big spender," she sure did popularize them and few wordsmiths could match her knack for making poetry out of contemporary slang.

And then there's Sutton Foster, a first-rate singing, dancing and acting stage star who can give off irresistible charm by presenting herself as the dorkiest kid in the room. There's a wonderful realistic contrast between the way her Charity awkwardly throws herself at men outside of work and the way she lures them in when on the job. (Scenes where the dance hall girls solicit customers can get very intimidating for those in the front rows.) When she finally meets an available man whose initial attraction to her isn't sexual, her hearts and flowers giddiness is heart-melting. And just on a purely technical end, her ability to perfectly land physical and verbal gags is a master class in comedy realism.

BWW Review: Leigh Silverman and Sutton Foster Discover Fresh Nuances In Intimate SWEET CHARITY
Sutton Foster and Joel Perez
(Photo: Monique Carboni)

The most significant of the minor revisions done to the text is when Silverman uses fluid staging to multiply the number of men who walk over Charity in the opening scene, pointing out that this is a woman with a history of self-esteem issues.

The first gentleman she encounters who treats her with respect is the silver screen heartthrob Vittorio Vidal, who, by a quirk of fate, winds up inviting Charity to join him in an exclusive nightclub after his lover storms out on him. Joel Perez is marvelously hot-headed, but gracious in the role and sings the sweeping ballad "Too Many Tomorrows" with elevated movie star passion.

Perez also scores as the loudmouth ballroom manager Herman and the con-artist jazz preacher Daddy Brubeck, who is the center of the second act's groovy dance number, "The Rhythm of Life."

Charity's main romantic interest arrives late in the first act, when she gets stuck in a stalled 92nd Street Y elevator with Shuler Hensley's claustrophobic Oscar. Looking like a disheveled businessman, Hensley, another fine actor, is extremely funny when playing the truth of Oscar's panic attack and it becomes very touching when these two emotionally damaged people innocently begin to connect. Alas, Oscar's issues may keep him from ever finding the romance he seeks.

Emily Padgett and Asmeret Ghebremichael exchange wisecracks and belt out social commentary as Charity's jaded co-workers, and team with Foster for the highlight of Joshua Bergasse's character-driven choreography, the Latin-accented "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This."

Music director and keyboard player Georgia Stitt is visibly stationed above the action, along with the other four members of the all-woman band playing Mary-Mitchell Campbell's orchestrations. The jazz club sound works well for most of the score, but the small ensemble unavoidable can't supply the full sound needed to support show-stoppers like "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "I'm A Brass Band."

While Bob Fosse's brilliance was regularly displayed with his sexy and stylish dance moments, this is a Sweet Charity where the book gets a real workout. There's still the lively zest of sharply-written musical comedy, but Silverman, Foster, Hensley and company make sure the fragile heart beneath the fun gets its say.

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From This Author Michael Dale

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