The iconic image of the 1966 musical Sweet Charity has traditionally been the heart that its heroine has tattooed on her upper arm, right where a sleeve could be. Charity is a hopeless romantic optimist; it’s what sets her apart from the jaded girls she works with at the Fan-Dango Ballroom, where she sells dances to grabby men. In the New Group’s deromanticized revival of the show, starring Sutton Foster in peak form, that heart is pointedly gone. During the reconceived opening number, Charity no longer sings the praises of her latest beau—who robs her and dumps her in Central Park—but of a long series of men, buttering them up with the same repeated lines. This makes her seem not just self-deluded but a bit phony: On some level, she can’t help being a Fan-Dango girl.
There’s an argument to be made for this approach, but it would require a darker and more specific production than the rest of what director Leigh Silverman has assembled. Attempting to stage the show with an ensemble of 12 leads to a lot of double and triple casting, which means miscasting more often than not. Shuler Hensley is exceptionally believable as the neurotic Oscar—whom Charity meets in a broken elevator and who may be her best shot at love—but most of the other performers seem too young, healthy and bland. They don’t look like worn-out New York working girls and creeps; they look like background players on Smash. Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’s score is similarly compromised when performed by a brassless band of five.
Yet there’s much to enjoy in this Sweet Charity, starting with the musical itself. The songs are top-notch; Neil Simon’s book still earns laughs. And Foster’s will-to-spunkiness is a terrific match for Charity: She sings and dances with endearing gusto, and has boffo comic moments. (She makes a meal out of making a sandwich.) But if this revival has a future, it should fill out to meet its ambitions. Foster is giving a big performance, and she deserves a production mounted to scale.
Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). Book by Neil Simon. Music by Cy Coleman. Lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Directed by Leigh Silverman. With Sutton Foster, Shuler Hensley. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission. Through Jan 8. Click here for full ticket and venue information.