exit-lines-logo1Sutton Foster, a big Broadway star, headlines a 50th anniversary revival of Bob Fosse’s famed musical Sweet Charity that’s far from a “Big Spender.” The original opened the huge Palace Theatre in 1966; this thrust-stage production, Off Broadway at a 250-seat house at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is designed for maximum intimacy. The first 3D feature, Bwana Devil, promised a lion in your lap; Sweet Charity gives you Foster in your face.

And that’s not a bad thing. The two-time Tony winner, who has been dazzling us since Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2002, is so good, so assured, that maybe we underrate her. Seen upclose, she still makes it look easy. Finding the poignant dimensions in the optimistically named “Charity Hope Valentine,” an over-the-hill taxi dancer stuck at the Fandango Ballroom in Times Square? Check. Squeezing every laugh out of Neil Simon’s book? Check–particularly when preparing a sandwich during one frantic episode. Selling all of the Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields standards, also numbering “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “I’m a Brass Band”? Check. Putting across those dazzling Fosse dance moves? Sort of–there’s a bit of that, but choreographer Joshua Bergasse (no slouch himself, and a Tony nominee for the recent On the Town revival) has gone his own way, grounding the steps, as it were. This is Sweet Charity, Cabaret-style–spare, simplified, cut to the basics. Fosse’s name is nowhere in the Playbill. (His interpretation, carried over in prior revivals, can be seen in his flawed, failed, but fab 1969 film version, starring Shirley MacLaine.)

Foster works. The revival doesn’t. Fosse and Simon intended the musical, based on Federico Fellini’s funny-sad film Nights of Cabiria (1957), to be a kind of fairy tale. Cabiria, wounded, weary, but indomitable, was a prostitute; Charity isn’t (and lectures a new arrival about the dangers of their lonelyhearts profession). It’s a softer take, with the rough edges smoothed over.  Eventually, after assorted misadventures, Charity does find a sweetheart, the shy Oscar (Shuler Hensley, Foster’s monstrous co-star in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein musical). The second act curveball is thrown when Oscar, a seeker of self knowledge through lightly satirized alternative religions and group therapy, turns out to be hung up on conventional notions of “purity.” Through thick and thin, no matter what happens in her wayward love life, she always has her friends in misery, Helene (Emily Padgett) and Nickie (Asmeret Ghebremichael), to fall back on (lucky her, and us; two other talented performers to enjoy). And, originally, Charity was given an escape hatch from her difficulties.

Leigh Silverman, who directed Foster in a dark-toned little musical, Violet, closes the door, not fully–harder, however, than the slight, and dated, material can bear. The Coleman oomph is gone. “Brass band”? Forget it–there’s maybe ten instruments onstage, on a platform above the performers. If ace set designer Derek McLane worked more than a few days on this New Group production (which opened today), I’d be shocked–the performers wheel in and out a few sticks of furniture. Jeff Croiter’s lights provide what spectacle there is to complement the cast. Unlike the acrid Cabaret, with all its resonant historical associations, Sweet Charity, a show of its eraneeds all the Broadway bells and whistles it can get to disguise its thinness. Hensley, who won a Tony playing the awful, and awfully human, Jud in the most recent revival of Oklahoma!, makes Oscar credible, but he can’t make one of the stranger male leads in the musicals canon believable. Fosses’s choreography is one thing, but it’s really Simon’s book that needs a complete overhaul. Without that, Sweet Charity seems ready for the glue factory of concert stagings, as Silverman’s conception of Charity as an eternal victim, forever manhandled, exposes what’s weakest in the material. Even with the leading lady at its center, giving it all that she can, this is still a Charity case.