February 21, 2010

Sweet Charity, Menier Chocolate Factory

Beg, borrow, or steal a ticket for the sake of Charity

5 stars

sweet charity

Sweet Charity, which originally burst onto the Broadway stage in 1966, running for 600 performances, tells the quirky and poignant tale of a resilient spirit. The show, written by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman, and Dorothy Fields, with original choreography by Bob Fosse, depicts a young woman – a dance hall hostess – in her quest for love and to be loved. Charity Hope Valentine is the flaneur of the title, wandering through transient love affairs and, at each stage, ending up disappointed, but never downhearted. She is initially pushed into a lake and robbed by her fiancé number one, Charlie, and then later let down by fiancé number two, Oscar, who is so prudish that he decides he cannot deal with Charity’s sexual past. Yet the more this Jack in the Box is pushed down, the more heartily she pops up.

Matthew White’s production of Sweet Charity at the Menier Chocolate Factory is absolutely top-notch. If you are tempted to roll your eyes at the fact that East Enders star Tamzin Outhwaite has been brought in to play the title role, then don’t bother. She is terrific and carries the show with oodles of panache, a smile as broad as a letter box, and an infectious zest for life, even in the face of Charity’s bitter disappointment. With her Doris Day freshness, sassy top hat and cane dance moves, and slightly smoky voice, Outhwaite carries the show with a vital drive and confidence that surely few leading ladies could offer.

She is supported by an ensemble so committed and energetic, doubling up roles with true originality and executing Stephen Mears’s challenging choreography with startling precision and class. Highlights of the show include “The Rich Man’s Frug” in which the Fosse influence is at its most pronounced and eccentric, and “Rhythm of Life” as a group of drugged-up hippies are led by “Daddy” in an alternative sermon under the Manhattan Bridge.

A special mention for character should go to Mark Umbers who plays all of Charity’s love interests with impressive variation, switching swiftly from the sinister Charlie to the suave Italian film star, Vittorio Vidal, who regards Charity with an affectionate bafflement, to the goofy Oscar, whose sincerity and shyness are heart-breaking.

An equally integral part of the show, of course, is the powerful nine-piece band, under the direction of Nigel Lilley, which produce a thrillingly fat jazz sound that pumps the whole Menier auditorium with life – not least because four of the band are spread across the back of the stage and so create an exciting surround sound.

It’s a treat to see a musical in a space as intimate as the Menier and, as always, the creative team have overcome its spatial limits. Simple moveable raked steps act as a fairground ride, the Manhattan Bridge, and the fire escape steps outside the seedy Fan-Dango Ballroom, over which the hostess girls nonchalantly drape themselves . The costumes provide the necessary colour, as well as a painted proscenium arch, and – more importantly – a stellar cast and band, who appear to relish every moment of this simultaneously wacky and heart-wrenching show. It is brilliant news that this Sweet Charity has a life in the West End after the Menier.

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