tue 16/07/2024

Sweet Charity, Menier Chocolate Factory | reviews, news & interviews

Sweet Charity, Menier Chocolate Factory

Sweet Charity, Menier Chocolate Factory

The tiny but mighty Menier surely has yet another West End-bound hit on its hands

Charity begins at the Menier: star Tamzin OuthwaiteCatherine Ashmore

"Fun! Laughs! Good times!" Anyone remember them? That snatch of lyrics from Sweet Charity, the 1960s musical that lifted Broadway to newly brassy heights and has been frequently revived on both sides of the Atlantic, serves as an apt summation of the Menier Chocolate Factory's latest musical crowd-pleaser, which, like Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, and La Cage aux Folles before it, surely has the West End in its sights.

Those expecting the stuff of revelation from Matthew White's slick staging, choreographed within an inch of its life by Stephen Mear, should think again: unlike either of the two Sondheims, Charity the show doesn't benefit from undue scrutiny and as musical theatre underdogs go, Albin/Zaza in La Cage is written with far greater dimension than Charity Hope Valentine the character: a heroine so put upon and wide-eyed that she boasts not one but three ironically (or are they?) deployed nouns for names.

In short, there's not much to be gained from mining this piece for subtext. What Cy Coleman's wonderful score demands is that any Sweet Charity sell the sizzle. This production does just that, and how, when Mear puts his cast through some of the most exhilarating paces, high kicks, and shimmies seen on the London musical stage in years. In acting terms, the show is a shade overemphatic, as if afraid that to let up on a full-throttle seduction of the audience even for a second would be to lose us altogether. But get the ensemble jiving, whether in the delicious Hair pastiche that is "The Rhythm of Life", or soaring in triplicate as the three principal women tear into "Baby Dream Your Dream" with almost Robbins-esque brio, and a cosy south London space suddenly becomes a place of terpsichorean splendour.

The impossibly leggy Cagelles in La Cage notwithstanding, this production stakes out newfound dance possibilities for the Menier, and Tim Shortall's scenery does its bit to assist, the various suggestive settings quickly clearing the stage so that the cast can get cracking in unison or, in leading lady Tamzin Outhwaite's case, on her hard-working own. It's not just that TV name - and, to be fair, Royal Court alumna - Outhwaite can sing, she can also move. And marking the kind of coincidence on which theatre trivia buffs feast, Outhwaite's Charity comes in the same week as the London directing debut (with Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) of Broadway's 1986 Charity, Debbie Allen: think of the post-show talkback possibilities.

London doesn't have enough musical theatre stars - then again, Broadway has far fewer classicists - so on that front alone Outhwaite's achievement here carries some of the excitement felt at the Menier on the press night of Douglas Hodge's career-redefining turn in La Cage. The difference, at least at present, relates to an effortful quality to an unabashed star vehicle that brought the press night audience to its feet.

As written by Neil Simon, and elaborated upon by Dorothy Fields's lyrics, Charity presents so potentially hapless and woebegone a case for, well, charity that we need to see a bit more of a chink in the armour. Outhwaite comes across as polished as the smile with which she greets life's setbacks, but the performance will land more movingly once it is working the house less hard. Charity, after all, exists a heartbeat away from disaster, which is why she's such a winning if also slightly masochistic creation. (Her origins are in the 1957 Fellini movie, The Nights of Cabiria.)

In a rare (economically driven?) tripling of supporting roles, Mark Umbers plays most of the various men in Charity's orbit, including the too-suave-for-comfort film star Vittorio Vidal and the nebbishy tax accountant, Oscar, with whom Charity meets cute in a lift: that last part makes a singularly odd assignment for the straight-up, suave-looking Umbers, who has features more appropriate to that other Oscar, namely Wilde. But as those who recall his peerless Freddy Eynsford-Hill from the Trevor Nunn My Fair Lady will recall, the actor can wed real selflessness on stage to a firm set of pipes; Umbers's own stardom seems a matter of when, not if.

Josefina Gabrielle, marking a complete about-face from her utterly sweet Irene Molloy in Hello, Dolly! over the summer, fields a newly slouchy, slangy pizzaz as Nickie, Charity's soulmate in benignly conceived sleaze. Her attitude - low-down yet likeable - is perfect for the first-act showstopper, "Big Spender", that song just one of a handful or more of the score's brassy, sassy up-tempo paeans to the mating dance as was in 1960s Manhattan. Chris Walker's orchestrations are loud and lustrous, and Nigel Lilley's band atop one side of the auditorium ensures they sing out. So, doubtless, will audiences caught up in the infectious nature of the show: look for more energetic playgoers to be doing the frug all the way home. 

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