With Sutton Foster in the title role of “Sweet Charity,” we now know that even big, beautiful, corn-fed girls from the American heartland can be fragile Fellini waifs. Although choreographer Joshua Bergasse has kept his distance from Bob Fosse’s original footwork, Foster’s up-to-here dancing gams and winsome countenance manage to pierce the achy-breaky heart of this classic 1966 musical by Neil Simon, Dorothy Fields, and Cy Coleman.
Up close and personal on the intimate stage of the Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater, “Sweet Charity” reveals its emotionally fraught origins in “Nights of Cabiria,” Federico Fellini’s 1957 film of Italian Neo-realism about an unquenchably romantic streetwalker memorably played by Giulietta Masina. Subsequent stage and film versions (with Gwen Verdon, Shirley MacLaine, et al) of this great material have sanitized the prostitute by making her a Times Square dance hall hostess, which strips the character of her poignancy but sets the stage for dancing.
And dancing is what you get a lot of in this modest but smartly staged (by director Leigh Silverman) production. Mary-Mitchell Campbell’s orchestrations give the six-piece band plenty of airspace to lay down the music for this dance-mad company. From “You Should See Yourself” (Charity’s flattering salute to her seedy customers) to the heartbreaking “Where Am I Going?” that ends the show on a bittersweet note, the characters think and feel with their dancing feet.
Foster’s Charity has a perky blonde wig and a personality to match. Her hardhearted boss calls her a “stupid broad” for falling for the line of bull from every Tom, Dick, and Harry who grabs her purse and throws her in the fountain. But the cynical working girls at the Club Fandango tango palace — who strut their stuff in a deliciously tacky version of “Big Spender” — are protective of her romantic dream of finding a man who will fall in love with her and take her away from all this. They open up their hearts in “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” proving that there’s a little bit of Sweet Charity Hope Valentine in all of them.
Against all odds, Charity seems to have found her Prince Charming in Oscar Lindquist (the peerless Shuler Hensley), a sweet, shy sad-sack of a guy she meets in a stalled elevator. Their wonderful duet, “I’m the Bravest Individual,” with its call-to-arms Coleman music and its incisive lyrics by the great Fields, applies to both of these lost souls: Oscar, who finds the courage to overcome his inhibitions, and Charity, for daring to dream of a better life for herself.
In Oscar’s loving eyes (“Sweet Charity”), even a fallen woman can emerge fully cleansed from a dunk in the fountain. Not that Charity is owning up to her tarnished profession. For the duration of their budding relationship, she goes along with Oscar’s fantasy that he is a great judge of character and has correctly pegged Charity as an office worker in a bank.
Without fear of being exposed for what she does for a living, Charity can be what she wants to be — happy and carefree in “I’m a Brass Band,” a great musical fit for the ebullient Foster. Until, of course, the unmasking that unkindly reveals Charity’s true profession to the world at large and to Oscar in particular.
Aside from the god-awful ugly costumes that Clint Ramos tries to pass off as 1960s-era fashion sense (one orange-and-white striped frock should be staked in the heart and burned at the nearest crossroads), Silverman’s production captures the air of wised-up innocence that defines the woolly era of the early ’60s. Charity is very much a child of her time, and Foster is just plain marvelous at conveying her yearning to fit in and belong. While a fine supporting cast (Emily Padgett and Nikka Graff Lanzarone among the players) are strongest in the dance department, there’s a sense that they have all seen the future and found it less fun than it was cracked up to be.