Sweet Charity

Sweet Charity
Musical with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, book by Neil Simon, based on Le Notti di Cabiria with screenplay by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano & Pier Paolo Pasolini

Charity Hope Valentine – Tamzin Outhwaite
Nickie / Ursula – Josefina Gabrielle
Helene – Tiffany Graves
Carmen – Annalisa Rossi
Suzanne / Rosie – Alexis Owen Hobbs
Frenchy / Daddy’s Assistant – Rachael Archer
Loretta / Frug Girl – Ebony Molina
Herman – Jack Edwards
Charlie / Vittorio Vidal / Oscar Lindquist – Mark Umbers
Daddy Bruebeck – Paul J. Medford
Daddy’s Assistant – Zak Nemorin
Cop – Jez Unwin
Manfred – Kenneth Avery-Clark
Young Man – Richard Roe
Swings – Matthew Barrow, Joanna Goodwin, Richard Jones, Gemma Maclean & Laura Scott

Matthew White – Director
Stephen Mear – Choreographer
Tim Shortall – Set Designer
Matthew Wright – Costume Designer
David Howe – Lighting Designer
Gareth Owen – Sound Designer

The Band:
Matt Senior – percussion; Rutledge Turnlund – bass; Pete Walton – guitar; Alan Berlyn & Hugh Davies – trumpets; Simon Walker – trombone; Duncan Lamont & Dai Pritchard – woodwind
Nigel Lilley – musical director

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 11 May, 2010
Venue: Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London

The basis of “Sweet Charity”, which opened on Broadway in 1966, lies in a 1957 Federico Fellini film, “Le Notte di Cabiria” (The Nights of Cabiria), a comic drama about an Italian streetwalker who is looking for love, which starred Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina. Despite everything that life throws at her, Cabiria continues to believe in love and life, with an imperturbable spirit that, despite the knocks dished out to this sad, naïve, fragile, tender figure, is never extinguished. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in its year and remains one of Fellini’s most touching and lasting films from his earlier period before the director embarked on more pretentious projects such as “La Dolce Vita” and “Otto e Mezzo” (8½).

Theatre director and choreographer Bob Fosse saw the film and began working on a one-act version for his wife, the actress and dancer Gwen Verdon, employing composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Dorothy Fields. The evening was originally to be made up with another single-act show by Elaine May, but Fosse decided to turn “Sweet Charity” into a full-length musical, using playwright Neil Simon to expand the book. The job of the heroine was changed from prostitute to dance-hall hostess, which then allowed Fosse to make the show a musical in which, like “West Side Story”, the dance element is just as important as the book, the music and the lyrics. Fosse also directed the film version of “Sweet Charity” with Shirley MacLaine in the title role, which has gained a better reputation than it ever found on its initial release in 1969.

“Sweet Charity” is written in the great Broadway musical tradition. It is probably one of the last to do so, for three years later “Hair” arrived and the shape of the Broadway musical changed forever. After “Hair” came “Company”, then “Follies”, “Godspell”, “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Pippin”, “A Little Night Music” and “A Chorus Line”, which all broke or bent the rules of what a Broadway musical should be. Jazzman and songwriter Cy Coleman, composer of “Sweet Charity”, had already had a hit with his show “Little Me” as well as being the writer of such songs as ‘Witchcraft’, ‘The Best Is Yet to Come’, ‘Hey, Look Me Over’, while lyricist Dorothy Fields was a veteran of the Broadway musical and the Great American Songbook material from the 1920s onwards. Her songs include ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby’, ‘On the Sunny Side of the Street’, ‘I Won’t Dance’, ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ and ‘A Fine Romance’, among others.

In writing the book, Neil Simon gave it a definite and authentic New York flavour. It may not be his wittiest script but it is more than serviceable. Charity Hope Valentine is a dance-hall hostess at the Fan-Dango Ballroom where men pay the girls to dance with them. Some of the girls may earn more for ‘extra’ services, but not Charity – she’s just looking for love. She first gets mugged by her boyfriend Charlie who steals her purse, she then gets picked up by famous film star, Vittorio Vidal, and spends the night at his apartment while he makes love to his girlfriend, and finally she meets Oscar, a shy young man when they are both stuck in an elevator. It seems that shy Oscar is the one for our dance-hall hostess heroine but he bugs out when he finally disapproves of his fiancée’s Charity work.

The stage equivalent of a ‘rom-com’, “Sweet Charity” gets by on the personalities of its characters and the song-and-dance performances of its cast. Some of the songs have become classics – ‘Big Spender’, ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’, ‘Something Better Than This’, ‘Rhythm of Life’, ‘Where Am I Going?’ – and they are given full expression by an immensely talented cast while Stephen Mear’s choreography, re-writing the original Fosse movements, stands out as some of the best you can see in the West End currently. Certainly the line-up of girls as they ply their trade with total disinterest is both a funny and sad routine in which the movements and body language say it all.

As Charity, Tamzin Outhwaite is a total revelation. Looking not unlike Doris Day with her helmet of blond hair, she sings and dances up a storm and gives the heroine an honesty above and beyond the confines of just the ‘tart with a heart’ stereotype, turning what could have been a one-dimensional characterisation into a real, living and vulnerable person. As her three partners in grime, Josefina Gabrielle as Nickie, Tiffany Graves as Helene, and Annalisa Rossi as Carmen, are all superb movers and they relish some of the best lines in the Simon script. Ebony Molina does the Frug Girl dance with great abandon and Paul J. Medford as Daddy Bruebeck gets everybody on their toes with the fine feel-good ‘Rhythm of Life’ number. At the end of the show, ‘I Love to Cry at Weddings’ is another great foot-tapper.

In Matthew White’s production all three of Charity’s boyfriends are played by the same actor, Mark Umbers, who manages to distinguish one from the other with complete conviction. The total company is just nineteen players, but, in doubling up their roles they seem to people the stage with far more personnel than appears possible. White must be congratulated on transferring this small fringe production first seen last year at the Menier Chocolate Factory so successfully to the West End. Following in the shoes of the Chocolate Factory productions of “La Cage aux Folles” and “A Little Night Music”, both of which are now hot tickets on Broadway, could “Sweet Charity” be the one to make the hat-trick on that Great White Way?

  • Sweet Charity is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London
  • Monday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinees Wednesday & Saturday at 2.30 p.m.
  • Tickets on 0845 481 1870
  • Sweet Charity

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