Friday, December 23, 2016

Leading Ladies On Stage—Sutton Foster in “Sweet Charity”; Laura Osnes at 54 Below

Sweet Charity
Music by Cy Coleman; lyrics by Dorothy Fields; book by Neil Simon
Directed by Leigh Silverman; choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Performances through January 9, 2017
The New Group @ Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Laura Osnes: The Roads Not Taken
Performances through November 30, 2016
54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, New York, NY

I’ve said it many times: we are in a golden age of sublime theater singer-actresses, and two of our very best are Sutton Foster and Laura Osnes. It’s always a treat whenever either of them are on stage, and when they appear in smaller spaces, so much the better. That’s what we get as Foster is killing it in Sweet Charity in the cozy confines of the Signature’s Linney Theater, while Osnes recently performed her captivating cabaret show at the intimate club 54 Below.

Sutton Foster (center) in Sweet Charity (photo: Monique Carboni)

Foster and director Leigh Silverman must deal with long shadows in Sweet Charity, based on Federico Fellini's classic 1956 tragicomedy The Nights of Cabiria, which starred the director’s beloved wife Giulietta Masina in the title role; Bob Fosse’s original Broadway production starred the director/choreographer’s beloved wife Gwen Verdon. So four legends of film and theater tower over this proto-feminist musical, whose tuneful and hummable score is by Cy Coleman, clever lyrics by Dorothy Fields and amusingly sassy book is by Neil Simon.

Foster’s Charity—the put-upon but endlessly optimistic dance hall hostess whose every romantic relationship ends in tears—is a dazzling creation, filled to the brim with the star’s bottomless well of charisma, pizzazz, charm and spunkiness. She can drop Simon’s sharp one-liners like nobody’s business, she can sing like a dream and her dance moves can put most of her peers to shame. As one example of many, her scintillating tap number during “If My Friends Could See Me Now” is such a show-stopper in every sense that it threatens to topple the tenuous hold Silverman has on the material.

Apparently, Sweet Charity must now be tweaked to make it palatable today: no one would believe such a beguilingly sweet thing as an almost willing doormat for men, so this hopeless romantic has been turned into a slightly more hopeful realist. Foster’s sass is less naïve ingénue and more bruised lover, and the show’s final number has become “Where Am I Going?”, originally sung by Charity before, not after, her final amorous entanglement ends in disappointment.

Such directorial intrusion doesn’t totally destroy the show: Derek McLane’s spare set, Jeff Croiter’s moody lighting, Joshua Bergasse’s serviceable choreography, the solid supporting cast and tight six-piece (all-female!) band contribute to its entertainment quotient. And Silverman knows enough to leave her star front and center, and she makes Sweet Charity as much her own as she did Anything Goes, Violet and The Wild Party. No one can do it all quite like Sutton Foster.

Laura Osnes

Minnesota native Laura Osnes made her auspicious Broadway debut in 2007’s revival of Grease, then consolidated that with winning turns in shows as varied as South Pacific, Bonnie and Clyde, Cinderella and Bandstand (coming to Broadway in the spring). For her current solo show at 54 Below—which she’s performed several times in the past couple years—she has looked at other musicals which, for various reasons, ended up not panning out for her, under the cute title Laura Osnes: The Roads Not Taken.

Opening with “Not for the Life of Me” from Thoroughly Modern Millie—which gave Foster her first Tony in 2002—Osnes proceeded through an alternate career that, in its offbeat way, is almost as impressive as what she ended up doing. Punctuated by thoroughly charming explanations of why this or that show didn’t turn out right for her (something else came along, she didn’t get called back, etc.), Osnes beguiled the audience with her bright, clear soprano in numbers from classic musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, Brigadoon, My Fair Lady and a pair of Sondheims, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd—all of which sounded tantalizingly right when she performed songs like “Show Me,” “Soon” and “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”

Equally satisfying were her forays into more recent shows: she agily brandished the puppet Kate for “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” from Avenue Q, sang the hell out of the title song from Bring It On (which is not in the show any more, she wryly noted) and dueted with guest star Rob McClure in a sensitive “What I Meant to Say” from My Paris. There was of course the requisite “Popular” from Wicked, but that was offset by “Let Me Your Star” from TV’s Smash and a lovely “What Baking Can Do” from Waitress, which she was in the running to take over from Jessie Mueller. Instead, she’ll return to Broadway in Bandstand, which she gave the audience a taste of with “Worth It.” When I saw it at the Paper Mill last year, Osnes’s emotionally focused performance was the show’s highlight, which it undoubtedly will be on Broadway as well.

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