The musical Sweet Charity was originally done on Broadway as a vehicle for Gwen Verdon, and it was directed by her husband Bob Fosse, who later made it into a 1969 movie starring Shirley MacLaine. Sweet Charity was based on Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957), which starred Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina as a hard-luck prostitute who desperately smiles through her tears. This Fellini film was re-envisioned by Fosse as a dance spectacle with sleaze and anger at its heart, particularly the set piece number “Big Spender,” where a group of dance hall hostesses very directly look for some customers.

In the drastically scaled-down version of Sweet Charity that is now playing at the Signature Center, there is no sense in “Big Spender” that the women are aggressively turning the tables on the male gaze. In fact, sexuality has been so drained away in this innocuous production that the travails of Charity Hope Valentine, played here by Sutton Foster, don’t begin to have the impact that they should.

There is room for different interpretations of this material, but the sordidness of life as a woman who is basically paid to get groped by men on a dance floor cannot be sidestepped. When Charity and her friends sing and dance to the extremely rousing song, “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” we need to feel the soul-destroying exploitation that they are trying to pull themselves out of. We never sense the awfulness of their lives because the staging, acting, and choreography here are so bare bones and sanitized.

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Foster is an old-fashioned sort of star, a real throwback. There is something tough-as-nails and driving about her cockeyed grin that calls to mind women like Doris Day or Mary Tyler Moore, or even someone like the tap-dancing 1930s movie star Eleanor Powell, whom Foster resembles when she puts on tap shoes and really sells the song “If My Friends Could See Me Now.” There is a sense, here and elsewhere, that Foster is trying her damndest to will this entire large musical into life all on her own. This is a valiant struggle, but she often feels miscast.

Both Masina and MacLaine went much too far with the “please don’t kick me!” pathos of this role, and in a way they were too right for it whereas Foster simply does not possess the kind of gullibility and naiveté that this part needs. Foster’s Charity seems like she would have walked out of that dance hall years before and pushed herself forward, especially when Foster uses the very low and worldly notes in her speaking voice.

The songs from this show by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields are always great to hear, and the backing by a small all-female band puts them over fairly well, but this Sweet Charity is fatally lacking in an overall directorial vision. Far too much responsibility has been placed on Foster’s very capable shoulders here, so that sometimes it feels as if we are in a near-empty bar or apartment with Foster and she is expertly auditioning to play Charity.

Foster does not hedge on the ending, which is far bleaker than what we generally get in a musical comedy. Foster’s Charity does not smile pluckily through her tears as Masina and MacLaine did. She has been brought down as low as possible, and any road ahead for this Charity is going to be a very hard one. At least Foster makes sure in this ending that the dark core of Sweet Charity comes to us intact.

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