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.
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…