Book by Neil Simon, Music by Cy Coleman, and Lyrics by Dorothy Fields
Directed by Leigh Silverman and Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Although it is difficult to experience a musical like “Sweet Charity” without comparing the current production at the New Group with previous productions, that is the only fair way to be critical of the current incarnation of that iconic work done by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, and Dorothy Fields. “Sweet Charity” at the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center should be judged on its own merit and not how it does or does not stand up to the 1966 Broadway production choreographed by Bob Fosse. The New Group’s “Sweet Charity” is unique, brilliantly cast, impeccably staged, and discovers the deep, rich underbelly of this musical that seems to have escaped notice until now.
It seems the most appropriate critical strategy for “reading” this new production of “Sweet Charity” is the new historicist criticism and the cultural criticism. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” the New Group’s “Sweet Charity” is a compelling and rich trope for none other than ‘America,” the same scarlet ‘A’ of Hawthorne’s novel. Like America, Charity Hope Valentine (played with a powerful introspective spirit by Sutton Foster has often been too trusting, too willing to compromise beliefs, too dependent on others for wellbeing, and often far too confident about the future. America, like Charity, has also been self-effacing to the point of self-destruction.
“Sweet Charity’s” predominant theme of identity counterpoints profoundly with the Nation’s search for identity. The musical peels away the layers of Charity’s past revealing her vulnerability and her less explored – but equally evident – inner strength. “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” with Nickie (Asmeret Ghebremichael) and Helene (Emily Padgett) becomes the musical’s mantra and Charity’s anthem. They deliver with an earnest longing, “And when I find me some life I can live/I’m gonna get up I’m gonna get out/I’m gonna get up get out and live it.”
Under Leigh Silverman’s sharp direction, the members of the impressive cast deliver authentic performances animated with deep honesty and endearing charisma. Derek McLane’s multipurpose set design serves as the dance hall, Vittorio Vidal’s (Joel Perez) apartment, the elevator where Charity meets Oscar (Shuler Hensley), the park, and other New York City locations sometime in the 1960s. Costumes by Clint Ramos and lighting by Jeff Croiter’s add rich levels of realism to the musical’s strength. The six-member all-female Sweet Charity Band does justice to Cy Coleman’s score and Joshua Bergasse’s choreography is stunning.
Nothing is the same. Not “Sweet Charity.” Not America. The New Group gives us a new “Sweet Charity” unencumbered by the past. The new historicist “reading” looks forward to a new America unencumbered by its past. Just as Charity wonders where she is going at the musical’s conclusion, so America can ask, “What am I all about and where am I going?” And America can confess, “Looking inside me. What do I see? Anger and hope and doubt, what am I all about?” No more moral cowardice for Charity. And no more moral cowardice for America. America, now more than ever, needs “dream its dream.”