What in the name of Carol Brady is happening on Sutton Foster’s head?
It’ll take a few minutes to get used to the flippy blonde ’60s wig that Foster is saddled with for the bulk of Sweet Charity, now at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center. Then you’ll notice how the haphazardly cut bangs bring out the actress’ wide eyes. And the way the choppy layers land on her cheeks, highlighting her fresh-faced charm. Hey, maybe the wig isn’t so bad after all!
Or maybe Foster is so wonderfully winning that it simply doesn’t matter. (The same line of thinking might also apply to her dress, a lilac sack-like shift that must have been chosen for its quick-drying properties — handy since her character “falls” into a lake not once but twice.) As the perpetually hopeful Charity Hope Valentine, the dance-hall hostess with a habit of looking for love in all the wrong places, Foster illuminates the New Group’s no-frills revival like, as Charity sings, “a hundred watt e-lec-a-tric light.”
Spirit-wise, director Leigh Silverman (who partnered with Foster on the beautiful 2014 Broadway revival of Violet) hews very close to the source material, Fellini’s 1957 film Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria) — particularly with her ending (of which I’ll only say: It works). A darkness pervades the Fan-Dango Ballroom. There’s a shopworn quality to the dancers; from their visible bra straps and pantyhose elastic to their tacky sequined halter tops, no attempt is made to smooth their rough edges. Although they promise “fun, laughs, good time” in the famous “Big Spender,” you’ll detect sadness in their eyes (it’s hard not to, given how close the audience is sitting). You’ll also see regret, boredom, and defeat. Silverman brings Charity into the number as well — even giving her a verse — a small but momentous move that makes her an even more multidimensional character.
Of course, Charity — originated in 1966 by Gwen Verdon — was always a pretty great part. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a performer better equipped than two-time Tony winner Sutton Foster (Thoroughly Modern Millie, Anything Goes), star of TV Land’s Younger, whose vocal and dance skills are matched only by her gift for physical comedy.
The top-notch supporting cast includes Shuler Hensley — who played The Monster opposite Foster’s Inga in Broadway’s Young Frankenstein — as the accountant of Charity’s dreams; Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett as Nickie and Helene, two tell-it-like-it-is Fan-Dango dancers; and the versatile Joel Perez in four roles: as their boss Herman, film star Vittorio Vidal, Charity’s ex Charlie, and Rhythm of Life preacher Daddy Brubeck. Did we mention this production is stripped-down?
As such, you’ll also need to reconcile the climactic “I’m a Brass Band” without, well, any brass in the band. But thanks to Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s groovy orchestrations — and the dynamite six-member, all-female on-stage band — you likely won’t miss the trumpets. As they sing in “The Rhythm of Life,” you’ll still feel “a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet.”