SWEET CHARITY has always been an odd duck of a musical comedy. Bob Fosse created it as a vehicle for his muse and ex-wife Gwen Verdon. Based on Federico Fellini's film NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, created for his wife, Giulietta Massina, SWEET CHARITY boasted top level creative talent, composer Cy Coleman, lyricist Dorothy Fields and book writer Neil Simon. The Coleman score is his best and Fields' lyrics perfectly capture the major characters. The problem for audiences used to more integrated numbers is that Fosse also insisted on novelty numbers that could showcase his choreography. So the show stops so Charity (Sutton Foster) and her new beau, the dangerously neurotic Oscar (Shuler Hensley) can go to a beatnik church for a novelty number, "The Rhythm of Life" and stop again right before the denouement for "I Love to Cry at Weddings." Old fashioned musicals did this, even in the mid-1960s (think "Turkey Turkey Time" from PROMISES, PROMISES). One has to accept this convention and enjoy the numbers for their own sake. The major problem with reviving SWEET CHARITY fifty years after its opening is that it is no longer possible to laugh at the awful things that happen to the central character. This revival, directed by Leigh Silverman, takes Charity's. situation seriously while keeping much of the fun in the show.
Charity is what used to be called a "taxi dancer," a girl you hired by the minute (remember the Rodgers and Hart song, "Ten Cents a Dance"), to dance with and be nice to paying male customers. In our less subtle age, they have been replaced by pole dancers. Charity's problem is, as she confesses, that she's "too giving," particularly of her sexual favors. She wants desperately to be loved but picks the wrong men to love her. The men in this musical are a pretty rum bunch. Silverman has rearranged the order of scenes and songs to allow us to take Charity seriously, ending with Charity at a kind of crossroads, realizing that she can't continue to live her life as she has. Unlike her cynical colleagues at the ballroom, Charity is a hopeless optimist. By the end, she has grown up a bit.
The New Group has given SWEET CHARITY a fine, small-scale production. Silverman's staging on the thrust stage flows beautifully. Joshua Bergasse isn't Fosse, but the choreography is more than good enough. The cast couldn't be better. Sutton Foster can't do vulnerable as well as Verdon did, but she is winning as this cockeyed optimist. And, of course, she sings splendidly. She's not as good a dancer as Verdon, but that's setting the highest possible standard. Shuler Hensley makes the neurotic Oscar a real character. Joel Perez is excellent in all the other male leading roles. Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett sing and dance superbly as Charity's sidekicks. The rest of the company are of the amazingly high caliber one expects in a New York musical. Special kudos to the six piece all-female band. Bravos all around.