Review: Sutton Foster is Superb in Sweet Charity

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I am a super-fan of Sutton Foster, who is in turn a super-fan of Gilmore Girls–all the more reason to love her.  Although most people know her as a rising TV star due to her current hit show Younger following on the heels of Bunheads, she is arguably the biggest star on Broadway, having command of pretty much any show she wants to do.  However, one of her dreams was to appear on Gilmore Girls and now she’s gotten her wish by playing Violet in the Stars Hollow musical in the upcoming Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.  “Violet” is an apt name, being the musical Sutton starred in two years ago that the Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino co-produced.

Sutton’s rise to the top is legendary.  In true 42nd Street fashion, in 2002 she ascended from the chorus to become the star of Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway after two leading ladies didn’t work out.  (Note, the 1933 movie 42nd Street was filmed on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, where Gilmore Girls is filmed.)  For the role, she went on to win Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards.  Since then, she has gone from hit to hit, award to award and now TV.  She can do it all so well—whether making you cry, laugh, or gasp at her incredible acting, tapdancing and singing.

I first saw her in The Drowsy Chaperone, where she hilariously played Janet van Graaf, a Broadway actress who opts for married life and sings a number where she protests she’s through with the limelight while trying aggressively to be photographed.  I’ve seen her in several excellent shows since that time, so when I heard she was doing Sweet Charity in a small theater on–guess it—42nd Street–I jumped at the chance.

If you’re not familiar, Sweet Charity debuted on Broadway fifty years ago, directed by Bob Fosse and starring his wife, Gwen Verdon.  Based on the Italian film Nights of Cabria, the musical was made into an American film starring Shirley MacLaine and also revived on Broadway twice.  The book was by Neil Simon and the score by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields which contains two standards, “(Hey) Big Spender” and “If My Friends Could See Me Now”.

(Warning: Here come the spoilers.)

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Sweet Charity is the story of Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer at the Fandango Ballroom in Manhattan who despite her circumstances always has hope and naively trusts one bum after another, none of whom appreciate her true worth.  It’s a window into a time when a woman’s ruined virtue left her few options in life, whereas today you can make a sex tape and use it to build a billion-dollar industry.  Although her situation is difficult for us to relate to, Sutton makes Charity believable—an innocent in the midst of a sleazy world, always optimistic in the face of setbacks.

The show begins as she waits in Central Park for the latest love of her life who ends up stealing her bag and shoving her into the lake.  Although no one including herself seems to value her, she catches the eye of Italian film star Vittorio Vidal who invites Charity into a fancy club, trying to make his girlfriend jealous.  They end up at his apartment where Vittorio delights in Charity’s humor and childlike wonder, while never making a move on her.  When the girlfriend reappears, Charity ends hiding in the closet before leaving with a signed photo she shows her dancehall friends who don’t believe her.  Her fortunes change when she gets stuck in an elevator with an awkwardly shy man named Oscar who suffers from claustrophobia.  He guesses Charity is a secretary and she doesn’t correct him, ashamed of her real profession, leading Oscar to pursue her and finally propose.  Charity thinks she’s finally made it out of her dead-end life, but her secret threatens her happiness.

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Because I’d only seen the Shirley MacLaine film, I was intrigued to see the show on stage, as there are usually changes in stage-to-screen adaptations—usually for the worse.  It was especially enticing having Sutton Foster play Charity and seeing her in a house of less than 200 seats, arranged around three sides of the stage, in contrast to the houses with thousands of seats where she normally plays.  Although Sutton has that quality that the best actors have—the ability to project their inner feelings all the way to the back of the top balcony–it is a huge treat to see her so close-up and see how hugely talented she truly is.

Played by someone else, Charity might seem a victim for whom we’d feel little sympathy.  As conceived by director Leigh Silverman and played by Sutton, we feel Charity’s vulnerability—her skin being about as thick as soft butter—and her big, unbreakable heart.  She’s also offbeat and delightful, making us see what a big star like Vittorio recognizes in her.  We can’t help but fall in love with Charity.  It’s a perfect role for Sutton, capitalizing on all her best talents and qualities.  The ending, different from previous versions of this show, leaves us feeling hopeful for Charity who has learned valuable lessons about herself and her place in the world.

Sutton is supported by a solid cast, with standouts Asmeret Ghebremichael and Emily Padget playing Charity’s fellow dancehall girls, singing “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” where they allow themselves to imagine for a moment a future beyond taxi dancing.  Special mention can be made for Shuler Hensley as Oscar, whom I’d seen previously as the Monster in Young Frankenstein (also starring Sutton), and Joel Perez in multiple roles including Vittorio (last seen in Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home).

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Another standout is the choreography by Joshua Bergasse.  Facing the daunting task of being compared Bob Fosse’s original choreography (Fosse’s unique style unfairly boiled down to “jazz hands” is among the most influential in theatre history), he makes you feel like you are seeing a show staged for the first time, perfect for telling the story and expressing character while also being crafted specifically for the thrust stage so that every audience members gets a unique experience.

Last time I checked, there are actually a few (not cheap) tickets still available for this show.  If you can, SEE it.  There are rumors that this will transfer to Broadway, but given Sutton’s busy schedule and ever increasing popularity, there’s no way to count on that.  If other projects do take priority, we can cross our fingers and hope that one of them is a Broadway version of Gilmore Girls.  Sutton would be perfect as an all-singing all-dancing Lorelai (no slight to Lauren Graham who is a terrific singer and dancer, as I saw when she did Guys and Dolls in 2009).

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