One of the best musical revivals in New York is taking place at the intimate Off-Broadway Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre where Sutton Foster is giving another bravo performance as the heart-of-gold dance hall hostess, Charity Hope Valentine, in the sparkling production of Sweet Charity.
Ms. Foster has played sophisticated (Anything Goes) and serious (Violet), but her forte is musical comedy (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Young Frankenstein, Shrek – the Musical). In Sweet Charity she brings a down-on-her-luck charm to the character, who is a hopeless romantic that just can’t catch a break in the love department. Previous actresses have given the role a sexier edge, but Ms. Foster is more an everyday waif, a bit gangly in her 1960’s mini-dress, as she seeks her place in life as well as romance.
What distinguishes the actress from other performers is her triple threat option—she’s a powerful vocalist, exemplary dancer, and convincing actress. In Sweet Charity she’s funny, pensive, and determined, providing nuance and grit to the role.
The book by the prolific playwright Neil Simon is full of the customary laughs and comedic touches one would associate with the man who has written over 30 successful plays and musicals. But, as with many of his shows, there is a depth and subtle complexity to the text that adds a more fully developed dimension to the production.
The plot is simple. Charity, who has worked in a seedy Times Square dance hall for eight years, is continuously jilted by creeps, cads, and scoundrels. Her complaints and excuses about their behavior fall on deaf ears with her best friends at the establishment – Nickie (Asmeret Ghebremichael) and Helene (Emily Padgett). Then, one day, by chance she meets a mild-mannered, somewhat anxious accountant, Oscar (Shuler Hensley), who truly falls for her. This time it seems Charity’s dreams will come true. Even her tyrannical boss, Herman (Joel Perez), is happy for her. But, in the end, will true love prevail?
The other cast members constitute a well-groomed troupe of performers. Shuler Hensley is sufficiently anxiety-ridden to make anyone watching nervous for him. He gives his character a good-natured appeal who, unfortunately still has demons to slay. Joel Perez shows his multi-faceted acting process playing various roles. He is contemptible as Herman, the proprietor of the dance establishment; suave as movie star Vittorio Vidal, and outlandishly funky as Daddy Brubeck. Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett give the production some sass, but also imbue their performances with a world-weariness and inescapability from their lamentable lives.
The score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields is filled with classics songs such as “Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” and “The Rhythm of Life.” They can be exuberant and celebratory, but also provide an emotional poignancy that explores the underbelly of big city life.
Choreographer Joshua Bergasse blends 60’s hipsterism with finely tuned, energetic ensemble pieces. He skillfully engages the talents of his leading lady, whether with individual routines or within nexus of the group of performers.
Director Leigh Silverman takes firm hold of the production in defining the musical’s upbeat as well as melancholy message. She has taken a very small stage, with minimal props and sets, and created a vibrant portrayal of big city lives gone askew. Utilizing multiple entrance and exit pathways, the director keeps the show fluid and agile. Ms. Silverman has done a masterful job developing the characters of Charity and Oscar so they are not just caricatures of wayward souls. The supporting performers are also effectively utilized giving this intimate production a fuller feel.
Sweet Charity, with a laudable performance by Sutton Foster, is not to be missed.