With music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields and book by Neil Simon, Sweet Charity premiered on Broadway in 1966 and many of its superb, catchy songs quickly became standards, familiar even if you don’t know where come from. It tells the story of taxi dancer Charity who, despite being resolutely cheerful and optimistic, looks for love in all the wrong places and, sadly, is destined never to find it.
Director Mark Perry has done away with any idea of a standard set and most of the show is performed on the floor of this flexible venue, with some seating around the sides, conjuring up a nightclub atmosphere, with the band hidden on stage. The imaginative set, such as it is, is restricted to an entrance – which changes guise many times – a flight of steps down to the floor, and just the essential furniture and props, all of good quality and changed most efficiently by cast and crew, so that the scenes flowed seamlessly into one another.
It is hard to believe that Charity, a very demanding role, is Heidi Hodgkinson’s first lead. She brimmed with confidence and style throughout and excelled in singing, dancing and acting so that we totally believed in her character. She had tremendous support from Emma Lumb and Emily McCubbin as her Fandango friends Helene and Nickie, both of whom danced and sang to a high standard. Their number Baby Dream Your Dream was particularly touching and memorable.
Tony Johnson really shone as Charity’s first real love Oscar Lindquist. His panic in the lift, although maybe a tad over the top, was a joy to watch and, with his golden singing voice, he endeared this bumbling, hapless Oscar to the audience, making it all the more surprising that he would break up with Charity at the end. A sensitive and top notch performance throughout.
Mark Davies was perfect as philanderer Vittorio Vidal, deftly keeping Charity hidden in the wardrobe when his mistress Ursula (a nicely judged performance by Rachel Spiller) came back to be reconciled. His beautifully liquid tenor voice was just right for Too Many Tomorrows. Geoff Wootton as Daddy Brubeck really evoked the spirit of the sixties and did full justice to my favourite number: Rhythm of Life.
What a huge supporting cast! Choral singing was very strong and they were well-choreographed by Emily McCubbin. The amount of hard work that had gone into rehearsals, particularly for the big set-pieces, Rich Man’s Frug, Rhythm of Life and I Love to Cry at Weddings, certainly showed and really paid off. Big congratulations to Wardrobe Mistress Val Hart and her talented team for sourcing so many colourful costumes, just right for the sixties (I’m afraid I can remember that era!), especially the white outfits and matching footwear for the Rich Man’s Frug. Lighting was well designed, complementing the costumes and creating just the right atmosphere for each scene in the absence of a set.
Musical Director Gareth Baynham-Hughes and his band made a great brassy sound, perfect for the songs, but despite being behind flats on the stage, they did overwhelm the actors at times when they were underscoring dialogue. Otherwise, sound quality was very good, even when the actors had their backs to the audience.
When staging productions in the round it is important to consider how much time the audience at the side spends looking at the actors’ backs. More attention could have been paid to angling the cast on stage so that they didn’t face front so much – especially during the large chorus numbers – and positioning some of the scenes (notably Too Many Tomorrows) further back in the performance area. Chorus members should also note that when you’re that close to the audience, it’s obvious who doesn’t know their words – I won’t name names!!
Minor gripes aside, this was a spectacular show. It looked great and was full of life and energy with excellent performances all round. Many congratulations to everyone involved.
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