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Off Broadway

Aisle Say On The Square: Odd Duck Musicals: Part One

Aisle Say On The Square: Odd Duck Musicals: Part One

Sweet Charity, Sutton Foster

I have a soft spot for Sweet Charity for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I played the title character’s neurotic suitor, Oscar Lindquist, in high school—and rather well, since, not being mature enough to understand all the psychological values, I shamelessly channeled John McMartin, who created the role on Broadway and repeated it in the film. But I digress before I get started.

Sweet Charity, Shuler Hensley, Sutton Foster

Transplanting a 50s Fellini film comedy to New York, it tells the story of a young woman, Charity Hope Valentine, making her living as a dance hall hostess, who just wants to be loved. But her own low self-esteem (though cloaked in a thick, protective layer of cheerful optimism), makes her forever a patsy to gigolos who would use her, rip her off and dump her. We actually see very little of that in Neil Simon’s mostly-canny book, just glimpses with some backstory. We mostly see the between-beaux existence, the vulnerability, the desperation, the low self-esteem and, paradoxically, the generous open heart that makes her victimhood possible, in a story that manages to have a through line yet be episodic at the same time; within a musical that unintentionally balances adult sophistication with an olschool musical theatre technique that delivers a special material score (both delightful and too glib for real exploration). And it has a melancholy ending that no one has ever quite been able to solve, because the final betrayal is not one you can blame on her emotional blind spots. We’ve been fooled right along with her, and a guy we trusted and liked has turned out to be a pathological coward.

Subsequently, revivals of the show tend to be strange affairs. There’s so much inherent showmanship implied by the material and indeed delivered by anyone who does it well enough, that Sweet Charity is forgiven as much as it’s enjoyed. The production currently assayed by The New Group is no exception. But it’s as odd as the material.

It takes a unique but credible approach to casting its two most important leads. Sutton Foster’s Charity is channeled through a girl-next-door persona on a par with light comedy appearances of Doris Day and Marlo Thomas, rather than the sex-kitten Charity iterations of Gwen Verdon, Juliet Prowse, Shirley Maclaine, Debbie Allen, Ann Reinking and Christina Applegate, et al. Shuler Hensley’s sweet neurotic, Oscar Lindquist, takes the original notion—a bland leading man type who reveals himself in extremis to be a basket case—and turns it on its ear. His Oscar is the poster boy for physically nondescript, gallumphy and overweight, with a shaggy (but beautiful when needed) vocal quality to match.

These choices, though, are surrounded by a cast that is both highly competent and strangely disappointing, with staging (for an audience surrounding it on three sides) to match. Leigh Silverman’s production and casting, along with Joshua Bergasse’s choreography landed for me a bit like a really good college thesis production, with two “ringer” stars and the best grad students in supporting roles. Affectionate, respectful, energetic, clear, resourcefully budget-minded (as you’d expect of an off-Broadway approach to a Broadway classic), to no one’s discredit; yet lacking the real pizazz of sensibility that distracts you from being too conscious of the material’s unevenness. Indeed, the production seems to play into it.

In my usual full disclosure mode, I must report I had no sense that the audience, as a whole, was disappointed. Only that they were making a little more effort to be forgiving of Sweet Charity than usual…


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David Spencer is an award-winning composer-lyricist, lyricist-librettist, author and musical theatre teacher. He has written music and lyrics for the Richard Rodgers Development Award-winning musical The Fabulist, which also contributed to his winning a Kleban lyrics award and several Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Theatre Foundation grants. He is also lyricist-librettist for two musicals with composer Alan Menken: Weird Romance (WPA 1992, York 2004) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which had its sold out, extended world premiere in Montreal in Summer 2015; cast album release soon. He made his professional debut in 1984 with the English Adaptation of La Bohéme at the Public Theatre; and he has since written music and lyrics for Theatreworks/USA’s all-new, award-winning Young Audience versions of The Phantom of the Opera (1996) and Les Misérables (1999) (book and direction for both by Rob Barron). Currently he is writing book, music and lyrics for a musical based on the iconic Russian novel The Golden Calf. Spencer’s published books are the Alien Nation novel Passing Fancy (Pocket, 1994), The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide (Heinemann, 2005, a regularly reprinted industry standard) and the script of Weird Romance (Samuel French, 1993). He is on faculty and teaches at the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and has taught at HB Studio, the Workshop Studio Theater and Goldsmith’s College in London. His primary professional affiliations are BMI, The Dramatists Guild and The International Association of Media Tie-in Writers.

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