You may recall that this is the story of Charity Hope Valentine, the defiantly optimistic dance hall hostess, a variation on the topos of the whore with the heart of gold, only here not quite a whore and with not only a heart of gold, but indeed, as embodied by Sutton Foster, pure gold from top to toe.
In the 1957 Fellini film, “Notti di Cabiria,” the heroine is in fact a hooker, but for America in 1966 things had to be made a bit more decorous, and Neil Simon’s book, transferring the action from Italy to New York managed to be neither wholly funny nor especially moving. But Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon did make things exciting, a married couple as were Fellini and his Cabiria, Giulietta Masina. And the premiere 608 performances were not too bad for that pre-Fantasticks and pre-Phantom time.
But then as now, much depended on the female star, and Shirley MacLaine in the 1969 movie, like Debbie Allen in the 1986 Broadway revival, did pretty damn well too. Not so much, however, Christina Applegate in the 2005 Broadway version., which made it only to 279 performances, despite commendable support from Denis O’Hare and Paul Schoeffler. How many will the show net this time round?
At the Pershing Square Signature Center, we are offered what may be viewed as a chamber musical version, small-scale and very low-budget. In a small theater, however, with the audience on three sides, one gets to be almost within hugging distance of the superb Sutton, and how well she acts, sings and dances her role, how girlish she manages to look in a blond wig, and how boldly she jumps up to straddle the waist of a new customer, no matter how disappointing the last one was.
Unlike the other girls in this dance hall, for which the good designer Derek McLane has simply designed a porous back wall and a bare wooden floor, Charity, with sweet naivete, hopes that the next client will be her redeemer. It is a bit too hard for that floor to impersonate the river into which a heartless customer, after fleecing her, tosses Charity so she almost drowns, and this is where the film or a grander staging comes off better. But of course sight lines in theater in the round, or even near round, do not allow for much scenery.
Clint Ramos had no such problem with the costuming, and has done particularly well by the short, inexpensive, pale blue dress, almost like a child’s play dress, which is all Charity has on when not working. Ms. Foster’s wears it with a touching grace.
The big problem here is the low-rent casting. Joel Perez simply isn’t a versatile enough actor for four parts, least of all for that of the older star actor, Vittorio Vidal, who after a tiff with his young girlfriend picks up Charity for a one-night stand, which doesn’t come to much after the girlfriend returns and Charity has to hide in the closet. I did rather like Emily Padgett as a fellow taxi dancer, Helene, but intensely disliked Shuler Hensley as Oscar.
Oscar is the seeming good guy who will apparently marry Charity, but turns out to be another loser, showing his true color when he panics in a stalled elevator with Charity and, terrified, drops his pants. Eventually he too crumps out on Charity, which, given how unprepossessing this overweight actor has become, may make it a blessing when he decamps. It pays off to follow Fellini’s casting of the accountant Oscar with Francois Perier, a presentable if ever so slightly sinister actor. Likewise, the star Vittorio is best played by an actor like Amedeo Nazzari, an older, polished, very popular leading man of the De Sica variety.
The orchestra has been reduced to six women seated visibly on a balcony above the action. The reduced orchestrations by Mary-Mitchell Campbell work reasonably well, and such female contribution is fitting. Song like “Hey, Big Spender,” “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” and “There’s Got to Be Something Better Than This” are still winners.
But Leigh Silverman, the canny director, has moved to the ending “Where Am I Going,” substituting a semi-dark number for both Simon’s and Fellini’s endings, each somewhat different, but both vaguely hopeful
There remains the all-important matter of the choreography, which from Bob Fosse was innovative and dazzling. That of Joshua Bergasse is more conventional, not bad, but not even as good as the one he did for the last revival of “On the Town.”
Yet finally all this pales in comparison to Sutton Foster performing her customary wonders. You would think that even those dastardly males that toss her about could not resist her; the ecstatic audience certainly can’t.