Bob Fosse is permanently linked with Sweet Charity, as is his wife, Gwen Verdon. The current off-Broadway production pays homage to the original staging of Sweet Charity, which turned on Fosse and Verdon. But, in Manchester, a complete re-imagining of Sweet Charity results in a production that features great dancing but did not depend upon it; a production that is easily the most heart-breaking I have ever seen, and one where the acting and singing was emphatically to the fore. Funny, sexy, abrasive, and real, this Sweet Charity finds its own way to mark an indelible impression on the hearts, minds and ears of all who see it.
One of the unique things about Sweet Charity, the successful 1966 Broadway musical (book by Neil Simon, lyrics by Dorothy Fields and score by Cy Coleman) is that when it is revived, you never know exactly what to expect. It’s a show with fluid constituent parts: it doesn’t necessarily start or finish the same way in each production, not every song list in a revival is the same as the revival before it, its overall flavour can be hopeful or bitterly tragic, sometimes both, and you can never be sure which of the characters, if any, will be doubled.
The delightful Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre revival in 2009 focussed on the kooky sweetness of central character Charity (a blissful Tamsin Outhwaite) and saw versatile Mark Umbers play all of the love interests in Charity’s life to great effect. The current off-Broadway production is wound around dance and emphasises the cost Charity pays for being sweet, and sees her central love interest, Oscar, played by Shuler Hensley while several other key roles in Charity’s life (Charlie, Herman, Vittorio Vidal, Daddy Brubeck) are played (brilliantly) by Joel Perez. Outhwaite radiated the sweetness and Foster emphasised the charity. Both approaches really worked – for entirely different reasons.
Now playing at the resourceful and continually impressive Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester is Derek Bond’s tight, taut and terrific re-invention of Sweet Charity. It’s a re-invention rather than a re-imagining because it starts from the position that there has never been a production of Sweet Charity before and forges its own path with every aspect of the work. Performances, musicality, approaches to character and dance – all aspects are fresh, vigourous and engaging.
Perhaps more accurately it might be called Bitter-Sweet Charity but it is an undeniably delicious treat.
Bond makes everything seem real. Simon’s book lends itself, naturally, to a kind of comic book style in presenting the various predicaments Charity finds herself in and many productions play on that, emphasising kooky humour and frenzied comedy. Bond simply finds the truth of each situation and mines it for drama and comedy in equal measure. You sit there, smiling or laughing, but also uncomfortable because of the honesty unpeeled in each situation.
The staging of Big Spender eloquently articulates Bond’s approach. This showstopper is usually staged as occurring on the dancefloor in the Fandango Ballroom, showcasing the seductive powers of Charity and her pals (who defend themselves to music).
Bond starts the number in the dressing room where the dancers prepare, juxtaposing the words and music against the unenthusiastic warm-up of these beleaguered but incredibly sensuous women. When they finally burst onto the dancefloor, all that has come before underlines their pain and commitment. And their sisterhood, their shared circumstances.
This simple change in staging unleashes a completely different perspective on a well known, well loved set piece. Fosse’s original choreography is not missed – the new staging and Aletta Collins’ spirited, sexually charged steps breathe fresh air into every aspect.
Nigel Lilley and Mark Aspinall ensure that Chris Walker’s orchestrations get superb support from the small but effective band. The orchestral texture is sound, the tempi are precisely right and the energy and support musically sensitive. Singers are never overwhelmed, but beats are strong and lyrical passages swoon and swoop as they should. The musical direction supports and augments the singing and dancing in an entirely integrated way. This Sweet Charity is as delightful to listen to as it is beguiling to watch.
The big musical numbers all get sensational treatment with brisk, sexy routines and characterful touches. Rich Man’s Frug fizzes and flirts; I’m a Brass Band is pert and exuberant; I Love to Cry At Weddings bounces with gritty excitement. Rhythm of Life is a particular triumph with an excellent vocal lead from Josie Benson’s gender-swapped Daddy Brubeck. (I confess to not understanding why the character wasn’t just changed to Mamma Brubeck).
The ensemble do truly superb work across the board, with particularly good work from Peter McPherson, Michelle Andrews, Alex Thomas-Smith and Christine Allado. (When not engaged in principal character work, both Daniel Crossley and Bob Harms contribute significantly to crisp ensemble routines).
Most insightful, however, is the way the big solos are approached. This production does not focus on the dance part of Charity’s life as much as the Fosse original did; rather, in the manner of most musical comedy, the songs are presented as advancing the understanding of character and situation. Numbers don’t become about dance routines: they become fundamentally about the music and lyrics. This is refreshing and permits a better connection with the spirit of Coleman’s score and the integrity of Fields’ lyrics.
It also means that the entire tone of this Sweet Charity seems more Sondheim than Fosse. Reflection, brutal honesty and intense emotional connection – these are the central planks here. And bravura dancing, flashy and brassy allure and slapstick comedy all give way to that. Very satisfactorily.
James Perkins’ design is endlessly inventive, making much out of little. The sense of each different arena for the crushing of Charity’s heart is readily and swiftly evoked and Sally Ferguson’s exceptional and moody lighting is a key part of this. Somehow the drabness of the Fandango Ballroom is conveyed by the lighting just as the risky optimism of the fairground scene comes as much from the half-light that cocoons the stalled Parachute Jump ride as it does from the representation of the ride itself. Magical stuff.
Fundamental to this re-imagining of Sweet Charity is the central performance and in Kaisa Hammarlund, Bond has mined pure gold. Hammarlund is perfection as Charity: bruised, brittle, hopeful, caring, frightened, excited and excitable, sexy, vibrant and irrepressible. Both fragile and stoic, Hammarlund’s Charity is a wondrous, unforgettable character.
The lyrics in songs like If My Friends Could See Me Now and I’m The Bravest Individual sounded freshly minted as Hammarlund delivered them: they seemed words for her Charity and no other. She is an effortlessly skilful dancer, too, but wisely does not make her performance about dance. Because just as Sally Bowles really shouldn’t be able to sing that well (given her status as a third rate performer) so Charity really shouldn’t be a virtuoso dancer (given her employment in Herman’s seedy club). Hammarlund understands this and makes the character work in every way, not just one.
Her relationship with her fellow dancers is excellently judged and all three make a joyous trio in There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This. Holly Dale Spencer is terrific as an open, broken and slightly nutty Nickie; Cat Simmons manages to balance warmth with deeply etched disillusionment and raspy, pragmatic belligerence. These are fresh takes on beautifully written roles and, together with Hammarlund’s Charity, they provide the beating feminine heart of the musical.
Bond elects to use different actors to portray each of the men in Charity’s life. This permits Hammarlund to maintain a through line for her character while all around her constantly changes, excepting her fellow dancers. It also permits a greater diversity in the range of characters who impact upon her.
Bob Harms is magnificent as Vittorio Vidal, managing sleaze and charm in the one smooth package. His accent is impeccable and very funny, and he sings Too Many Tomorrows with just the right degree of self-indulgence. The comical scene in his bedroom allows Hammarlund a chance to develop her own shtick, not repeating the marvellous routines Verdon and MacLaine made famous; she brings the house down with ease here, but never lets the audience forget the underlying pathos.
I cannot remember a better Herman than the one Sévan Stephan creates. He is creepy and repugnant, but also grudgingly a father figure to the women whose lives he degrades. An underbelly of idiocy follows this Herman like a cloud, but every now and then Stephan shows the possibility of a lightning strike: it is chilling to watch him, half-lit, above the dancers, watching them intently and counting his cash. He sings I Love To Cry At Weddings with a gloriously free top, letting the song shatter the atmosphere with exhilaration, perfectly setting up Charity’s final crushing blow from Oscar.
In smaller roles, Alex Thomas-Smith is terrific as Vittorio’s aide, Manfred, and Peter McPherson sets up the entire cycle of horror for charity with his splendid cameo as Charlie Dark Glasses, the first of Charity’s beaus we see humiliate and devastate her. Christine Allado’s pouting Ursula is a comic joy.
One of the most difficult things to make work in Sweet Charity is the character of Oscar. The audience needs to want Oscar and Charity to live happily ever after, otherwise the final change of heart does not have proper impact. In many ways, Oscar is the most obviously Neil Simon character, having more than a passing resemblance to Felix in The Odd Couple. He is a character with problems and tics, a flawed man with deeply held fears and prejudices. Very hard to play successfully.
Daniel Crossley has no difficulty with the part: he is astoundingly good. His Oscar is immediately likeable and engagingly sweet. It is impossible not to want he and Charity to couple up. Hammarlund’s Charity blooms in his company and Crossley shows Oscar lowering his near impenetrable defence mechanisms. It is beautifully done, incrementally and subtly – and it makes their final break-up all the more shattering. Crossley uses stillness expertly too; often his Oscar is most eloquent in silence.
Crossley’s precision as an actor has never been more sharply in focus than here. It is a performance of great skill and intelligence – and Hammarslund takes every ounce of energy Crossley offers and burns more brightly because of it. His rendition of Sweet Charity is flawless and, unusually, it really seems like the title song.
This is a truly wonderful Sweet Charity. Manchester has produced a production of a musical which could justly claim the title of Best Revival of a Musical in the UK. A terrific cast, superb leads, inspired direction, fresh choreography and spirited impeccable musicianship – like The Rhythm of Life, this Sweet Charity is a powerful thing.