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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Truth to tell, even the invaluable New Group's smartly streamlined new production of Sweet Charity must contend with Neil Simon's fragile (and nowadays dated) book — essentially an excuse for a talented actress and supporting cast to kick up their heels and sing to Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields songs. Fortunately, there's nothing flimsy about Coleman's jazzy score and Fields' tremendously witty lyrics. They're catchy, danceable and durable, which is why quite a few have become breakout hits beyond the show's stage and screen life.
In fairness to Simon's contribution, he did provide the story with some welcome and apt caustic humor. Just a few examples: Oscar's attending a therapy group to cure his shyness but telling Charity "I never had the nerve to bring it up in class" . . .Veteran hostess Nickie reassuring a newcomer who's nervous about not being a good dancer with"Who dances? We defend ourselves to music!"
Sutton Foster, this Sweet Charity leading lady wasn't born yet when Gwen Verdon first played Charity. But she's become one of Broadway's busiest and most deservedly popular stars and is an ideal choice. She has the legs and lungs and is a good enough actress to deliver the emotionality of the musical adapted from Frederico Fellini's film Nights of Cabiria as well as the humor.
Leigh Silverman, who also directed Foster in Violet, has taken full advantage of the actress's ability to be both funny and poignant. However, though Foster brings the glitter of a Broadway star to the show her name is not above the title but alphabetically with the entire ensemble. Fair enough, since this is very much an intimate ensemble show that's mounted in a modest sized theater. That means it doesn't lend itself to a lot of jaw dropping theatrical pyrotechnics but relies on A+ work the whole cast.
And A+ work is exactly what's on offer — especially from Emilie Padgett and Asmeret Ghebremichael as Charity's wisecracking dance hall pals Helene and Nickie. They struck me as sharper and more fully realized than any previous Helenes and Nickies I've seen. Another particularly well chosen actor is Shuler Hensley as the neurotically shy and idealistic Oscar. Unlike the last Broadway revival's Oscar, Denis O'Hare, Hensley knows his way around a song. It was therefore a wise decision to have him do "Sweet Charity" as a solo; also to join Charity for "I'm the Bravest Individual" for the joyful beginning of their romance.
The Off-Broadway sized cast also does some deft multi-tasking, notably Joel Perez. He's on the mark as the self-absorbed Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal. The chance meeting that finds Charity hidden away in a closet of his luxurious apartment while he reconciles and makes love to his glamorous girl friend Ursula (Nikka Graff Lanzarone) is hilarious. Its accompanying song, "If My Friends Could See Me Now," showcases both Sutton Foster's impeccable comic timing and Dorothy Fields' memorably delightful lyrics ("To think the highest-brow/Which I must say is he/ Should pick the lowest-brow/Which there's no doubt is me. . ."). Another big Perez winner is "I Love to Cry at Weddings" in which he's joined by the company.
Ms. Silverman and designer Derek McLane have put every inch of the Pershing Square Signature Center's Romulus Linney theater to good use. The square playing area has the audiences seated around on three sides and on two levels. The section at the back cleverly yields a variety of scene setting surprises, including a closet full of some of Clint Ramos's glitzy outfits for the dance hall girls. The balcony above that section is reserved for the terrific five-piece, all female band.
Since dance is the engine that really drives this show, a few props are rolled on and off two specially constructed ramps so that there's enough room to accommodate Joshua Bergasse's choreography. Viewers with fond memories of Bob Fosse's brilliant "Big Spender" and "Rich Man's Frug" will nevertheless find Bergasse's version of these show stoppers lively and fitting for this setting and Foster's style. The use of those ramps for entrances and exits is at times a bit too clunky, but not enough to be distracting.
Choosing women for the orchestra is all part of this production's greater emphasis on the Fandango hostesses' camaraderie and joint desire for a better life. It gives fresh potency to their melancholy lament "There's Got To Be Something Better Than This." It also underscores the darkness of shared hope mixed with fear and insecurity in the repositioned and re-cast finale.
The "Rhythm of Life" production number in which Charity and Oscar spend a date at a church run by a group of hippies from San Francisco never had any real connection with the central story. Yet it survived the current streamlining. No wonder, since it does mix some Soul in with the jazzy sound and adds a pungent anachronistic flavor.
The buzz about this revival have seeded rumors of an eventual move to Broadway. However, it's the up-close intimacy of this setting that's this Sweet Charity's real charm.
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Book by Neil Simon
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Dorothy Fields
. Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Cast:Yesenia Ayala (Betsy, Panhandler, Daddy's Assistant, Others), Darius Barnes (Thomas, Marvin, Doorman, Others), James Brown III (Man With Dog, Daddy's Assistant, Barney, Others), Lori Ann Ferreri (Swing), Sutton Foster (Charity Hope Valentine), Asmeret Ghebremichael (Nickie), Shuler Hensley (Oscar), Sasha Hutchings (Rosie, Elane, Others), Donald Jones, Jr. (Ice CreamVendor,Philip, Others), Nikka Graff Lanzarone (Carmen, Ursula, Others), Emily Padgett (Helene), Joel Perez (Charlie, Herman, Vittorio Vidal, Daddy Brubeck)Codia williams (Waiiter, MaitreD, Manfred, Others
Scenic Design by Derek McLane
Costume Design by Clint Ramos
Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter
Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg)
Make-up: Joe Dulude II
Hair and Wigs: Charles G. LaPointe. Orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Orchestra: Georgia Stitt (director, keyboard), Lauren Hendrix (Bass), Janna Graham (Drums), Alexa Tarantno (Reeds), Nioka Workman (Cello)
Stage Manager: Valerie A. Peterson
Running Time: 2 Hours, including 1 intermission
The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
From 11/02/16; opening 11/20/26; closing 1/08/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at November 17th press preview
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