So many musicals are said to have “second-act trouble.” The New Group’s current production of SWEET CHARITY suffers from “first-scene trouble.”
When the Neil Simon-Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields hit opened in 1966, Charity sang her first song “You Should See Yourself” to Charley, the man she loved and expected to marry.
Not that it did it any good; Charley threw her into a pond and stole her pocketbook.
Charity’s sincerity, devotion and bubbliness were reasons why we immediately liked and sympathized. Director Leigh Silverman has rethought the number, but hasn’t used her head any more than she’s used her heart. Silverman has Charity sing the first section to one man, the second to another, the third to another still. This establishes Charity as, you should pardon the expression, a slut. That she says “You should see yourself” to everyone suggests that one size fits all to her – and that demeans her.
I can hear Silverman rebutting that late in the script Charity does list a parade of boyfriends (admittedly, that word may well be a euphemism) and that she does too easily fall in love (if you can call it that). True, but a show with the word SWEET in its title was conceived as a musical comedy; darkening it, as Silverman has done, only stains it.
Remember that Bob Fosse, who was not only the director-choreographer but also the show’s auteur, made a profound change from the source material. Federico Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA made the title character an out-and-out prostitute. Fosse ameliorated that by having his renamed Charity become a dance hall hostess in an era when that profession still existed in Times Square. While it’s hardly an occupation to make anyone brag (and Charity certainly doesn’t), it’s still a step up from out-and-out whoring. This show is, like it or not, a musical comedy at heart, what with those raging Coleman melodies (“I’m a Brass Band”) and unique Fields lyrics (“In my flag, you’re the 51st star”).
Truth to tell, even Fosse could have better stressed Charity’s sweetness. The original logo was a picture of star Gwen Verdon (a/k/a Mrs. Fosse) who sported a blatant tattoo on her arm. This was a time (unlike today) when respectable women wouldn’t offer even an inch of flesh to needle and ink. Considering that this production’s Playbill establishes that we’re still “sometime in the ‘60s,” Silverman and Broadway superstar Sutton Foster might have eliminated the tattoo. It takes away her vulnerability, which Foster only manages to display in the scene that has her meeting potential beau Oscar. The rest of her characterization makes Charity hard-bitten, seen-it-all and calculating, all of which keeps us from truly enjoying her.
Case in point: Vittorio Vidal (beautifully played by Joel Perez; a movie star should only be the fine human being that Perez conveys) spats with trophy girlfriend Ursula, so he picks up Charity as a consolation prize. When they’re in his apartment and about to drink their champagne, Vittorio toasts “Bottoms up!” and Charity, who’d already confessed that she’s been known to say “Up yours!” knee-jerk repeats it. Verdon was aghast at her social gaffe; Foster isn’t at all ruffled at hers.
When she must make a swift exit behind Vittorio’s coat rack — because jealous Ursula has unexpectedly arrived – Sweet Charity takes her sweet time choosing what bread she’ll take with her and carefully buttering it. Green-eyed Ursula wouldn’t be content to wait that long for Vittorio to let her in, either. These are just plain anything-for-a-(cheap)-laugh bits of direction.
It gets worse. Charity elevates herself so she can peer over the coats so that she can witness the two lovers having sex. Originally Charity peeked through the closet door’s keyhole, but only for a few moments before realizing that she must give the lovers their privacy. And where did Foster get that pair of binoculars that makes her an official voyeur? She’s supposed to be Sweet Charity, not Peeping Charity.
At least Charity’s one and only dress isn’t the severe black one that Verdon wore; here it’s a pinkish-lavender one, albeit dully designed by Clint Ramos. You’ll easily see that the same color is used for Charity’s underwear, which Foster endlessly flashes and sometimes reveals in its entirety. Panty lovers, this is the show for you.
Foster mostly gives a flat delivery to her lines as if she’s completing a homework assignment that makes her wish she didn’t take that speech class. I’ve never witnessed Neil Simon jokes get such little response (and, yes, I’ve seen THE STAR-SPANGLED GIRL and PROPOSALS). As for her dancing, Foster is so eclipsed by Emily Padgett and Asmeret Ghebremichael (respectively co-workers Helene and Nickie) in “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” that the best we can do for her is to use that ol’ euphemism “She moves well.”
Ghebremichael gives a consistently grounded and genuine, non jazz-hands performance. Even better is Shuler Hensley, marvelous as Oscar, who wants to be loved as much as Charity does. When she says she depends on him, Hensley gives out a terrifically effective shy and endearing smile that makes you immediately love him.
Was the idea to slow the tempo on the title song his or musical director Georgia Stitt’s? Kudos to the smarty who thought of it, for Hensley is now able to make it come across as a true declaration of love and not just a typical ‘60s Broadway ballad.
Choreographers who could even equal Fosse’s distinctive Tony-winning dances would bust their buttons in pride, but Joshua Bergasse won’t be visiting his seamstress for emergency sewing. Bergasse might have reminded us that ‘60s dances were famous for their themes; hence Fosse here gave us “The Heavyweight” which had all the dancers make boxing moves. (“The Dentist” in CACTUS FLOWER, which opened seven weeks before SWEET CHARITY, reflected the leading male character Julian Winston, D.D.S.) Bergasse simply creates a mash-up of dances that display any real distinction.
The budget being what it is, the Central Park pond is a mere pool of light. Once Foster immerses herself in it, Charley grabs a bucket and douses her with actual water. That’s fine, Silverman repeats the move later, but has someone much nicer than Charley doing it. That makes the moment much too severe and attributes nastiness to a character who simply doesn’t possess that flaw.
The show reduces well, and even the five-member orchestra’s lack of brass – most missed in “I’m a Brass Band,” of course – doesn’t fatally hurt. Silverman has retained the entire score, even “Charity’s Soliloquy,” which has been dropped in some productions. Two words, however, are conspicuously missing. After Charity declares of a boyfriend “The bum wants to go to Florida,” she originally added “Cummon down!” Those who were around in the late ‘60s remember the many, many Eastern Airlines TV commercials that encouraged those freezing in New York winters (and 1966 was a particularly cold one) to “Cummon down!” to Florida. No one born after the Nixon Administration would get the gag, so off it went.
The show has historically had about as many endings as Henry VIII had wives, for no one – not even Simon — has ever found a satisfactory one. Silverman’s choice is to reposition Charity’s “Where Am I Going?” followed by a few introspective lines of “You Should See Yourself” – which she now directs as advice to herself. Unfortunately the result more resembles an Act One curtain than a final one.
Not every one of Silverman’s ideas is bad. Having Charity joining “Big Spender” and Ursula collaborating on “Too Many Tomorrows” are both sharp decisions. At Charity’s going-away-party at the dance hall, Silverman has Ghebremichael and Padgett show true emotion when they say they’re going to miss their colleague; it’s a great improvement over the Lucy Ricardo wails that Helene and Nickie usually give.
But the director misses one basic must of working on a three-quarter thrust stage. During “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” the hat-and-cane number in which Charity briefly apes Charlie Chaplin, Silverman has Foster face house left, denying two-thirds of the audience the chance to enjoy the maneuver.
When Foster is given the cane, she twirls it in a deft way that shows she knows her way around a baton. But the baton should have been passed to an actress who could have convinced her director to play Charity sweet.