I don’t envy anyone who follows Giulietta Masina, the moon-eyed clown who played the lead in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria with such masterful balance of comedy and pathos.
But Sutton Foster, the actress taking the lead in a new revival of the Cabiria-inspired musical Sweet Charity, is no stale imitator. She plays Charity Hope Valentine, a taxi dancer at the Fandango Ballroom who dates a parade of men who are quick to abandon her but are unable to dampen her faith in love. Sporting a misshapen pageboy haircut and an indefatigable smile, Ms. Foster radiates good will that is often at odds with the grimy New York and purchased affection that surround her.
Perhaps what is most surprising about Sweet Charity is its faithfulness to its neorealist roots. Granted, Fellini’s lead was a prostitute rather than a dancer—a profession Charity is proud to have avoided—but the musical, while not exactly disowning its protagonist’s optimism, never fully endorses it, either. When hope arrives in the form of the neurotic tax accountant Oscar Lindquist (Shuler Hensley), their relationship is sunk by that most common of fatal flaws: jealousy. Oscar conceives of Charity as “a virgin in the most poetical sense,” and once he stumbles into the truth, he is no longer able to commit to marriage. This is all a rather sophisticated take on male insecurity over female sexuality, particularly in an era when Guenevere was Broadway’s version of a promiscuous woman.
Ultimately, I am reminded of those great tearjerker moments in Chaplin: the Tramp at the end of The Circus or Modern Times, knocked down by fate but ready to rise again and walk off into the horizon. “Buck up—never say die,” he tells Paulette Goddard in the latter. “We’ll get along.” It is the same buoyant spirit—naïve, inspiring, and uniquely American—that animates Sweet Charity.