Continuing their run of reviving classic musicals for Christmas, the Menier Chocolate Factory have turned their attentions to Sweet Charity this year. Stuffed full of instantly recognisable songs like ‘Big Spender’ and ‘Rhythm of Life’ by Cy Coleman and Bob Fosse’s inimitable choreography, the story of Charity, a girl trying to escape her life as a dancehall hostess and find a decent man is one of the classic movie musicals and so my expectations were high. And I am pleased to say they were largely met.
Tamzin Outhwaite is a revelation here, (to me at least) never having watched anything with her acting I’d had my doubts, but she really is very good here. A brilliant comedic actress, her scenes trapped in the closet and at the diner were laugh-out-loud funny, but she was also effective at conveying the joie de vivre that gets Charity through the trials of life without being at all cheesy. Her singing was consistently good plus she has some great dancing skills.
In a curious decision, there’s some doubling up of the major supporting cast which isn’t always successful. I quite liked the choice to have Mark Umber playing all 3 of Charity’s men friends: their appearances were consecutive so he was only ever playing one at any one time and they were characterised differently enough so there was no confusion. Less successful was the decision to have Josefina Gabrielle play both Charity’s friend Nicky and the filmstar Ursula. There was a point when she literally ran from one scene on one side of the stage into the next scene on the other side. Had this been a tiny fringe company then this might have been understandable, but there’s about five other women, any of whom could have taken one of the roles.
Still, Gabrielle was great value for money, looking and sounding gorgeous and none more so when she was make-up free for ‘Baby Dream your Dream’ with Tiffany Graves who also gave good solid support. And importantly for any big musical, the ensemble numbers were all top-notch. The company (at least five of them imported from Hello, Dolly!) sounded amazing and were tightly drilled with some fierce dancing going on, Ebony Molina’s frugging was an eye-popping standout and I particularly liked the fact that there was a real mixture of body types throughout: for one it gave more authenticity to the brothel scenes and also kept a grittiness to proceedings, anchoring it in some semblance of reality rather than the flightiness of a Broadway dream.
And that is what is most successful about this production for me, it never loses that bittersweet touch that elevates this musical into one of the true classics for me. It never shies away from the truth of what Charity does for a living, but remains both funny and sad whilst telling us, and above all it is an abundantly tuneful work. The Menier definitely have another winner on their hands here and I’d be extremely surprised if this doesn’t transfer into the West End, following La Cage aux Folles and A Little Night Music, as it really does deserve it, and the bigger audience a transfer will undoubtedly bring.