Charity Hope Valentine is, for a dance-hall hostess who’s been around the block a few times, a nice girl. What’s more, she’s a good sport. Even after her steady boyfriend Charlie steals her handbag and pushes her in a nearby pond – and the numerous male bystanders take their sweet time in rescuing her – she resurfaces smiling. She’s still enamored enough of humankind that she won’t squeal on her erring (and did we mention, married?) lover to the cops who finally show up to ask her what happened. But that’s Charity for you. Eternally optimistic, she bounces back from each calamity (and there are many) a little the worse for wear, but always game for more. And the sad thing is, there is always more. More heartache, more abuse and more disappointment.
In the New Group’s new production of this 50-year-old musical, written by Neil Simon (based on Fellini’s screenplay for Nights of Cabiria), with a jazzy score by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, triple-threat success story Sutton Foster plays the naïve dance-hall hostess. And while the two might seem to share little beyond spunkiness and an almost limitless store of good cheer, Foster manages to suggest through her cockeyed stance – and even her celebrated tap-dancing (original choreography by Joshua Bergasse of On the Town fame) – a charming but unmistakable ungainliness that signals Charity’s inability to successfully navigate the world in which she finds herself.
To be fair, that’s not entirely Charity’s fault. Yes, even as a dance-hall veteran of eight years, she’s still so painfully eager to please almost any passing man that she gives fresh a bad name. Even among the other girls, who pretend cynicism but all want the same thing, she stands out for her daffy desperation. But while that’s always been Charity's most striking character note. Director Leigh Silverman (Violet, From Up Here) has created a stripped-down production, with its band of five and simple stage setting, and plays up the hopelessness of Charity’s hope – and the culpability of the men who let her down.
Oh, they’re not all despicable – just disappointing. Take the romantic Italian movie star Vittorio (Joel Perez) who picks her up in a moment of pique with his girlfriend. He’s a perfect gentleman, resisting Charity’s none-too-subtle hints at some illicit quid-pro-quo and offering her mementoes to prove she’s spent at least an evening with him – and hiding her in the closet when his girlfriend shows up. But when Charity returns, crestfallen, to her club, the other girls tell her she should have gotten him to set her up in business for herself, at the very least. Shortchanged again.
But when, looking for self-improvement at the Y, Charity gets trapped in an elevator with the claustrophobic schlub Oscar (winningly portrayed by Shuler Hensley), her luck at last seems to be changing. After the two bare their souls (and, in Oscar’s case, a little more) in the elevator, he asks her out to church cum jazz cult for one of the show’s most famous numbers, “The Rhythm of Life.” Sure, their courtship has its stumbles, and Charity tells him she works in a bank rather than a dancehall, but the two seem fated for happily ever after. At last!
Except that, well, nothing ever goes that swimmingly in this sweet show with a sour center. However peppy the girls try to get about the future, as their shared aspirational theme, “There’s Got to Be Something Better than This” signals, things right now ain’t so great. And even the sultriness they bring to their come-hither siren song, the iconic “Big Spender,” is imbued with a world-weary practiced cynicism that pretty much forecloses any kind of meaningful connection before they’ve even made eye contact. But then, they’ve learned through painful experience that the men coming into their clip joint aren’t really after meaningful connections.
Clad in a light, loose, slightly dirty minidress and white shoes, Foster brings just the right note of bruised vulnerability to Charity, and she carries the slimmed-down show effortlessly. As she and the neurotic, bumbling Oscar grow closer, we see her mistrust emerge and begin to melt. But while her faith is touching, it begs the question of why betrayal is so inevitable, not just for her, but for all the dancehall girls. Still, this striking, thoughtful production can’t be expected to solve every existential new issue it raises – and as its new ending emphasizes, whatever the reason, Charity’s condition rings sad but true. Charity may be sweet, but in this world, sweet girls finish last.