The musical Sweet Charity has good bloodlines—book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, original direction and choreography by Bob Fosse—yet the 1966 show has never occupied the top tier of musicals, such as My Fair Lady, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof or Gypsy. It has hardly languished in obscurity—there was a decent Broadway revival in 2005—but the New Group production directed by Leigh Silverman is such a persuasive delight that you may come away thinking it is top-tier after all. The production benefits from a terrific performance by Sutton Foster, a two-time Tony winner (and star of TV Land channel’s popular series Younger) in the title role. Foster is better known for big-budget Broadway shows such as Thoroughly Modern Millie and Anything Goes, but it’s a thrill to see her work magic in close quarters.
Charity is vulnerable and tough, a taxi dancer who yearns to get out of the business, where sweaty men paw her. Even when she’s unconscionably dim, Charity is likable. Talking about a guy whom she loved but who dumped her cruelly, she protests that he surely loved her: “Every time I said I loved him, he said, ‘Ditto.’” Helping immeasurably is Foster’s precise comic timing and a willingness to look foolish. Trying to impress Vittorio Vidal, an Italian movie star who has picked her up (Joel Perez, smooth and suave in one of several roles), she jumps over the back of a banquette and later, eating an olive, spits out the pit. The scene leads into Vittorio’s apartment, where Charity puts forth a forceful sexual come-hither to no avail.
It’s when Vittorio leaves the room, and Foster sings breathily the first words of the next number, pausing between them, “If…they..,could…,” that one senses Silverman’s sure grasp of the material. It’s a sweet, canny tease before she bursts into “If They Could See Me Now.” Foster delivers it with exuberance and clarity—helped, of course, by Fields’s superbly crafted lyrics, with the hard b’s, d’s, and t’s in “I’d like those stumblebums/To see for a fact/The kind of top-drawer, first-rate/Chums I attract.”
One of the great songs in Coleman’s gorgeous score is the dancers’ “Big Spender.” In the light of 50 years of consciousness-raising, it’s astonishing to find how well Sweet Charity works as a feminist tract—was Neil Simon this prescient? The production shows that women had few choices if they were on their own and not married, that their lives were controlled by men who didn’t care about them or their working conditions, that they just give and give and get nothing in return. Charity is independent and strong even if she surrenders her heart too freely. Her tribulations—her boyfriend tries to drown her; a later love interest proves a heart-breaker—are underpinned with resilience.
Although there's one satiric scene about 1960s hippiedom that’s badly dated but still amusing, thanks to Clint Ramos’s colorful glad rags, Simon’s book is loaded with jokes that still deliver. Says a new girl to Charity, “I’m Rosie,” to which Nickie (Asmeret Ghebremichael), one of Charity’s cynical chums, says, “Not for long, you ain’t.” Yet the ending is darker than many of the classic musicals, a reminder that in such works as Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Anyone Can Whistle, and Cabaret, the genre was on its way to tackling more serious material.
Dancer Gwen Verdon starred in the original production, and Sweet Charity is about dancers, so Joshua Bergasse has provided plenty of memorable choreography. Foster’s belt is renowned, but her dancing is equally outstanding. She does high kicks in “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” along with her two pals, Ghebremichael’s Nickie and Emily Padgett as Helene, and there’s a delightful choral number to the frug as well.
Late in Act I, Charity meets Oscar (Shuler Hensley), an equally likable schnook, and they have a tender courtship. Hensley proves as game as Foster at physical comedy, and his sweaty neuroses are enjoyable. But the laughs can't last.
This ambitious show from half a century ago is an invitation to time-travel back to the dawn of the serious musical—before French revolutionaries, presidential assassins, and collapsing Southeast Asian regimes had done their worst—to a time when comedy was still a driving force in musicals, thanks to master practitioners. More than that, Sweet Charity is also an object lesson in why a star is a star.
The New Group’s revival of Sweet Charity runs through Jan. 8 at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $95–$175 and may be purchased by visiting thenewgroup.org.