It’s a full circle moment in the career of Sutton Foster, who stars in The New Group’s intimate and beautifully staged revival of Sweet Charity. Foster’s breakout role came in 2002 when she won the Tony Award for Thoroughly Modern Millie, playing a girl who arrives in New York City looking to marry for money but discovering love instead. Charity, on the other hand, is desperately on the lookout for love but only seems to attract crooks and cheaters. Working as a dance hall girl at the Fandango Ballroom, her naiveté is a source of constant teasing from Nickie (Asmeret Ghebremichael), Helene (Emily Padgett), and the other dancers, but Charity’s bright-eyed enthusiasm enables her to weather many a storm of musical comedy.
With a book by Neil Simon and score by Cy Coleman (music) and Dorothy Fields (lyrics), Sweet Charity delivers a charming throwback vibe. Bob Fosse originally conceived, directed, and choreographed the Broadway production more than 50 years ago, casting his wife Gwen Verdon in the title role. (Shirley MacLaine starred in the film version). Leigh Silverman (Violet, Kung Fu) directs this incarnation with choreography by Joshua Bergasse (On the Town).
Streamlining the cast to a dozen (the original had 30 actors), the creative team puts Charity center stage amid a whirlwind of changing costumes and wigs, creatively designed by Clint Ramos and Charles G. LaPointe respectively). Foster, now with 11 Broadway credits to her name and starring in TV Land’s hit series Younger, carries it with goofy and heartfelt effervescence.
After recovering from her latest break-up, Charity finds herself in the midst of a celebrity brawl and in the presence of Italian film star Vittorio Vidal (Joel Perez). To make his girlfriend Ursula (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) jealous, Vittorio invites Charity into a posh nightclub and then back to his penthouse apartment. Comedic genius ensues as Ursula arrives and Charity hides out in the closet. Foster, evoking some of the best comedy shtick of the era in the spirit of Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball, is brilliantly on point with her comedic timing.
After that debacle and with the revelation that there might be more to life than the dancehall, Charity heads to the local Y to seek out inspiration. She meets Oscar (Shuler Hensley) in the lobby as he’s en route to group analysis, and the pair become trapped in the elevator. This time it’s Hensley’s turn to chew the scenery in a brilliantly staged panic attack.
Charity and Oscar begin a brief romance, but she’s determined to come clean regarding her career. He’s one step ahead of her though, and just as Charity thinks she’s found the man of her dreams, Oscar reveals that he’s incapable of accepting her sordid past. The original production ended on an upbeat note, but The New Group’s revival wisely shuffles some material in the second act, putting Charity’s 11 o’clock number, “Where Am I Going?” as a final soliloquy for the girl so desperately in search of love.
Foster, who has danced her way to two Tony Awards, chooses to sit firmly in the pocket of Charity’s endearing quirkiness. That’s not to say that she doesn’t tap out clean pullbacks in “If My Friends Could See Me Now” or kick to her nose during “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”—but her movement is informed by Charity’s awkward charm.
As her romantic foils, Joel Perez (Fun Home) plays most of the male principal roles in the show and delivers an impressive tour de force performance, diving in and out of accents as a one-man-band version of 1960s New York City. And as the affably neurotic Oscar, Hensley is huggabley endearing, even as the unexpected heartbreaker.
Silverman stages wisely within the intimate Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre. Bergasse’s choreography dutifully nods to Fosse on occasion, but also breathes new life into famous dance sequences like “Big Spender” (practically haunting in its simplicity) and “Rich Man’s Frug.”
But the evening belongs to Sutton Foster, who puts her stamp on one of the great musical comedy roles of the 20th century.
The New Group
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Through January 8