Where Is She Going?: Sweet Charity Revived

Where is She Going?: Sweet Charity Revived

I had a great time at the New Group's current, vest pocket revival of Sweet Charity, directed by Leigh Silverman. Its clear raison d'être is star Sutton Foster, who creates a goofy and endearing Charity, the perpetually out-of-luck romantic whose eight-year employment in the "rent-a-body business" hasn't hardened her to the possibility of finding love. Even in the opening scene, while waiting for her newest beau, Charlie (his name is tattooed on her arm), she sings to a series of potential new beaus in Central Park who sling her around and upside down, an apt movement metaphor for her grab-at-anything approach to love. The production is carried along by Foster's inspired clowning and song-and-dance brio. She even dances in character. Her sleek Reno Sweeney tapping is here replaced by gangly body language that embodies the character's confusion over her endless bad choices.

Oscar, the insurance actuary she thinks may finally whisk her away to a happily-ever-after ending, is usually cast as some variation on a milquetoast. But Shuler Hensley's Oscar is a hulking sad sack who hints at a troubled history with women. Hensley's tender rendition of the title song is the show's loveliest musical moment, and gives off a disquieting sense that he's trying to talk himself into something he may not be ready for.

Charity and her crowd have a raffish Damon Runyon-like affability, the Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields score is rousing, and even second-rate Neil Simon packs plenty of zingers. The New Group's cast is game, though so stretched by the double and triple--and in the case of crazy versatile Joel Perez, quadruple--casting that they seem to be always catching their breathe.

But neither Charity nor Charity has aged well. The show's satire of beatnik culture ("Rhythm of Life"), dead-eyed discothèques ("Rich Man's Frug"), and pay-to-play sexuality ("Big Spender") made it feel right of the moment when it arrived at the top of 1966. (Not to mention the wailing guitars in "Rich Man's Frug," among the first electric instruments used in a Broadway pit.)

But by the time Fosse's film version arrived three years later, the show was the victim of a changing culture. Its flower power hippies and the dance hall "hostess" who must hide her occupation in order to make a respectable marriage (a contrivance easier to accept on stage) were corny and contrived.

Fosse realized this when he revived Charity in 1985, locking it down firmly in the 1960s and speeding the tempo, lest anyone linger too long over a character whose doormat qualities now seemed more discomfiting than funny. Later revivals have fussed over Charity, trying to make her more independent and self-aware, but gullibility and bad choices are baked into the character.

Foster's effervescent and inventive performance only acerbates the issue. Is dancehall employment really her only career option? With her shiny bright looks and bubbly personality (even in what looks like one of Jane Fonda's leftover wigs from Klute), she'd rake in the tips if she ever abandoned the FanDango Ballroom for one of those hat check gigs dreamed of as if it were a lottery win.

Reviving Sweet Charity also means confronting its Fosse DNA. No show is as much Fosse's as Sweet Charity, in which he truly emerged as a musical theater auteur. It was his idea to adapt Federico Fellini's emotionally devastating Nights of Cabiria to Times Square New York, changing its scrappy Roman streetwalker to a slightly worn dance hall "hostess." (Fosse had already been making notes for a musical set in a dance hall.)

Fosse wrote the initial adaptation. The songs were written to specific spots he identified. He tailored the role of Charity to fit the singular talents of his wife, the great Broadway dance star, Gwen Verdon. And he created not only Charity's "funky junk" dance language but a stylized movement landscape that gave the show the feel of an urban fable.

Choreographer Joshua Bergasse mostly manages to escape Fosse's long shadow--no small feat. His dances are confident and varied, if not memorable, and he makes maximum use of the postage stamp-sized stage. Bergasse smartly uses the center of the stage as an axis around which the dances swirl, making sure everyone in the three-quarters seating area has a view. He leans heavily on his star, adding Foster to both "Big Spender" and "Rich Man's Frug," numbers originally designed to give Charity a well-earned breather. I don't remember much about his voguing choreography for "Rich Man's Frug," but days later I was still laughing at Foster's inspired counterpoint clowning during the number.

Fosse's adaptation, though close to Fellini, was dark and sometimes unpleasant. Like Cabiria, Charity was tough and streetwise (she goes for blood in a fight with a dance hall colleague). Fosse did his own version of a scene in which Cabiria is hypnotized and humiliated in a theater. (Charity's took place in a sideshow and featured the lovely Coleman-Fields song, "Pink Taffeta, Sample Size Ten," which was lost when the scene was cut.) Fosse finally enlisted Neil Simon to tweak the show's book and give it some much-needed humor. Simon also softened Charity, making her a second cousin to Guys and Dolls's Miss Adelaide, a hopeless romantic forever waiting to be wed.

One thing they never got quite right was the ending. In the final moments, Fellini rescued Cabiria from utter despair with a moment of transcendence, leading to one of the great cinema fade-outs. Fosse and Simon treat Charity's abandonment by Oscar as a joke. He suddenly turns Victorian, fixating on the long line of men who came before him, and pushing her into Central Park Lake as he runs away. Emerging from the water, Charity spots a good fairy who promises her a happy ending, but doesn't realize that she's merely an advertisement for a new television show, The Good Fairy. Off she saunters, determined to live "hopefully ever after." The ending is more flippant than upbeat, and treats Charity like a patsy. Fosse and Simon lowered the stakes for Charity and left both critics and audiences unsatisfied. (Fosse's film version aimed for that transcendent Fellini feeling with a final shot reminiscent of Chaplin disappearing into the bustling New York City streets in City Lights.)

Subsequent revivals have struggled to make the ending, if not happy, then less jokey.

Silverman stays true to the original ending, with Foster and Hensley playing the moment of abandonment darker than ever. (Silverman also gives Charity's dunking in the lake a witty, John Doyle-ish representational twist.) Charity's searching "Where Am I Going?" is now the show's final moment, and as she sings, she's joined by others, including Oscar. In that moment, Silverman creates a New York City full of lonely, isolated souls ever hopeful that someday they'll connect. It's a plausible conclusion for a 2016 Sweet Charity whose final image reflects a populace fully wired but yearning for personal connection.