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‘Sweet Charity’ review: Sutton Foster steals the show

Sutton Foster and Shuler Hensley in The New

Sutton Foster and Shuler Hensley in The New Group's revival of "Sweet Charity" at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Credit: Monique Carboni

WHAT “Sweet Charity”

WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.

INFO $95-$175; 212-297-4200; thenewgroup.org

BOTTOM LINE Spectacular Sutton Foster, slightly more compassionate “Sweet Charity.”

If Bob Fosse could see her now, what would he make of Charity Hope Valentine in the revisionist, Off-Broadway revival of “Sweet Charity” in a 222-seat theater? More to the point, would he and the other creators of this gooey-eyed 1966 musical comedy even recognize their brassy, ridiculously sentimental show about sizzling, gold-hearted dance-hall floozies and a love-starved, relentlessly adorable emotional doormat named Charity?

Now that director Leigh Silverman and her marvelous star, Sutton Foster, have tried to smarten up the preposterous female stereotypes into a compassionate character study, is it enough to soften some of our lifelong resistance to a hit about the sunny side of women selling, as the song says, “good times.”

Not, I’m afraid, if you want the new version to make much more psychological sense than the old one. Although we are meant to see the sad underwear under the sparkling showgirl costumes, such flashes of desperate reality hardly set us up for the jarring betrayal of tone. We still get jerked around from happy semi-hooker songs to Charity’s crushing disappointment when the imperfect man of her dreams (the wonderfully sympathetic Shuler Hensley) drops her. We leave her as we found her — flailing alone in a Central Park lake.

But back to Foster, which is where the eyes stay, especially up close in a tiny theater with audiences on three sides. And the production — rumored to be flirting with Broadway — has a sleek, tacky charm with an ace six-woman band on top of a long rectangular stage.

With a dewy face untouched by Charity’s eight years of soul-draining work, Foster is a spectacular dancer and all-around musical virtuoso. Wearing a little ’60s sack dress and several winsome wigs, she taps, hangs upside down from men’s legs, extends endless balletic limbs and luxuriates in the can-do courage of a floppy clown. Although her character spends most of the show with a cloying optimism just this side of pathological, Foster somehow never has a phony moment.

“Sweet Charity,” of course, has a few dark and delightful songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, including “Big Spender,” though Joshua Bergasse’s functional choreography can’t keep us from missing Fosse. With Silverman trying to make Charity’s story real, the show’s senseless scenes and songs — marching bands and new-age cultists — feel more irrelevant than ever.

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