The Rhythm Of Life may be surging through their veins, but when you’re not only having to learn the lines for an iconic musical, remember the choreography, and having to play multiple instruments, it’s a juggling act of talents. Paul Couch spoke to cast members Katie Birtill, James Haggie, and Dan De Cruz.
For the cast of Sweet Charity, opening the New Wolsey Theatre’s autumn season, these multiple challenges are just part of the normal day-to-day routine for actor-musicians.
“It’s the sheer volume of things I’m having to learn,” explains Katie Birtill, taking on the title rôle of Charity. That sheer volume of information is something fellow cast member James Haggie also recognises, but thinks that is part of being a musical actor. “Apart from having to retain a lot more information, I don’t think there are that many differences.”
New Wolsey regular Dan De Cruz is now more than familiar with the challenges of actor-musician shows and finds the ensemble company atmosphere is one of the things that keeps drawing him back. “As an actor-musician, you’re front and centre one minute then accompanying someone else the next, so it’s a very supportive and playful atmosphere.”
Such a classic musical, well-loved on both stage and screen, brings challenges in creating something fresh yet still familiar to audiences. Is it something that the company find a challenge? De Cruz is stepping into the shoes made famous by Sammy Davis Jnr. “His version is a classic, and one that has rightly lived on,” he explains. “I’ve gone for a different angle, but with still the same awesome song.”
Despite the numerous versions over the years, and approaching 50 years since it was first staged, the piece still holds a place in audiences’ hearts. “It’s about a girl looking for love and trying to make the best of her lot and those themes are universal and timeless,” explains Birtill, not daunted by following the likes of Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon, Shirley Maclaine and Tamzin Outhwaite. Charity may not seem the modern strong independent woman, but there’s an inner steel. “She’s a real people pleaser and is desperate to be loved, but she finds strength throughout the show,” explains Birtill.
It’s a relevance that Haggie believes still connects with an audience. “At its heart it’s a love story, and I don’t think those emotions have changed over the years,” he explains.
With a score packed full of Cy Coleman numbers that will be well-known, even to those who have never seen the musical, there must be a great temptation to hum along. “My favourite to play is There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” reveals De Cruz. “And to listen to and watch, Big Spender,” he continues. “Oh and of course Rhythm of Life.” Better Than This is also a favourite with Haggie but, for Birtil, it’s the girls who steal the show. “I love listening to Baby, Dream Your Dream,” she confesses. “It’s so beautiful and heart-breaking and the girls sing it so well.”
So why should audiences come and see this classic musical? “It’s a feast of riches for the ears and eyes,” promises Haggie. For De Cruz, the actor-musicians promise a treat. “A cast of 17 makes a phenomenal sound!” But he has one more draw – “Katie’s version of Charity is brilliant!”
So it’s perhaps appropriate to leave the last word to Charity herself. Why does Birtill think audiences should come? “It’s a story that I think anyone can relate to, we’ve all had knocks and bad things can happen to us all, but we can pick ourselves up”.
Sweet Charityruns until 26 September at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich.
Photo: Mike Kwasniak