Review: Foster shines in perky revival of ‘Sweet Charity’

NEW YORK — Watching the repeated misadventures of a gullible girl who always gives her heart to Mr. Wrong can be exasperating. But the 1966 musical “Sweet Charity” found the fun in a series of slapstick romantic failures. The original hit Broadway show, with music and lyrics by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Field, book by Neil Simon and choreography by Bob Fosse, won the Tony Award for choreography.

The New Group’s energetic, playful revival opened Sunday night off-Broadway at the Pershing Square Signature Center, starring a perky Sutton Foster as incurable romantic Charity Hope Valentine. Director Leigh Silverman embraces the farcical schtick of the original, which mocked mainstream societal norms, and creates a vibrant sixties atmosphere while acknowledging dark moments.

Foster portrays Charity as vulnerable yet resilient, if lacking much self-respect or common sense. She’s a longtime dance hall hostess, a demeaning job where men paid to grope women while the women politely fended them off. Foster’s girlish persona doesn’t illuminate how a naif like Charity could survive in this sleazy environment. But if anyone can grab our sympathy, it’s cockeyed optimist Charity, especially when she’s armed with Foster’s thousand-watt smile, bouncy determination and keen comedic timing

The production abounds with flashy, kinetic dance numbers courtesy of Joshua Bergasse, who maximizes Foster’s peppy appeal and athletic dance style. Music director Georgia Stitt leads six female musicians atop the thrust stage, providing a rich interpretation of the score that includes jazzy dance numbers like an exuberant “If They Could See Me Now” and the iconic, cynical “Big Spender.” Colorful period costumes like multi-hued hippie glad rags in “Rhythm of Life” enhance the ’60s vibe.

Simon’s stereotypical women predated feminism. Charity and her world-weary fellow dancers are hoping to be “rescued” by a man and marry into financial security. Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padgett are standouts as dancers Nickie and Helene, who wistfully aspire to respectable jobs like receptionist or hat-check girl in “There’s Gotta Be Something Better.”

Joel Perez brings a rich tenor and assured humor to several characters, including sexist dance hall boss Herman and handsome Italian film star Vittorio Vidal. He powerfully delivers on “Too Many Tomorrows” and “I Love To Cry At Weddings,” and the broadly funny, extended scene between Charity and Vittorio in his bedroom is a highlight of the show.

Charity’s elusive dream may finally come true when she meets neurotic, middle-class account Oscar, (given a bumbling agreeability by Shuler Hensley). But as her hoped-for safe haven veers off course, Foster finally provides some thoughtful reflection with a solemn coda to the ensemble finale, “Where Am I Going?”

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