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Sweet Charity – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Book: Neil Simon

Music: Cy Coleman

Lyrics: Dorothy Fields

Director: Peter Rowe

Musical Director: Greg Palmer

Reviewer: Glen Pearce

 

The Cinderella story is a loved theatre staple, but the familiar tale is given a twist in 1960s musical Sweet Charity. Cinderella may get her prince but will Charity find the man of her dreams?

Sweet Charity has become a much-loved musical since it first hit Broadway back in 1966. It has become a star vehicle for the likes of Gwen Verdon, Shirley MacLaine, Bonnie Langford and Tamzin Outhwaite. It’s a vehicle that here Katie Birtill takes full advantage of, delivering a show-stealing performance that leaves the rest of the company pretty much in the shade. Her Charity is no pushover, yes, she may be unsure and desperate for love but she knows what she wants – well, sort of. Birtill makes the rôle her own, shaking off any echoes of her illustrious predecessors, giving Ms Valentine more depth than often seen while belting out the classic numbers with a power that threatens to bring the roof down.

Those classic numbers are the glue that holds Sweet Charity together, Big Spender, If They Could See Me Now and Rhythm of Life – all musical standards that have fled the musical to become self-sufficient standards. It’s a good job they are, as approaching 50 years on since its premiere, the structure of the piece is beginning to look a bit creaky. It takes a long while to get going and a long while to get anywhere and, even when it does, it seems like the journey really hasn’t taken us anywhere. There’s a feeling that, however great they are on their own, the musical numbers are shoehorned into a piece that could actually stand as a play without the songs.

It’s a creakiness not entirely helped by Peter Rowe’s actor-musician production. On the surface the simple monochrome staging, lit up by technicolour costumes and video screens, seems the ideal background for the swift scene changes but, while Libby Watson’s set designs appeal, the scene changes take time and sometimes threaten to derail the piece. There are some wonderful inventive touches with the video walls and an original and well-conceived drowning but there’s a cohesion missing outside of the classical musical numbers.

Those classical musical numbers also prove to be somewhat troublesome. While there is an understandable urge to breathe fresh life into well-trodden pieces, some of the interpretations don’t quite work. A fluffed line during Big Spender mars press night, while the updating of Rhythm of Life is fun and energetic but, when the conga player seems to be playing a different rhythm to the singers, it somewhat misses the point of the song.

It’s these little things that stop this from being a great production despite much promise. Alongside Birtill, the cast of 17 actor-musicians bring 1960s New York to vivid life and there’s fine support from Katia Sartini and James Haggie in particular but, overall, there’s never a sense of the entire ensemble gelling or the minor parts being fleshed out.

For those familiar with the musical, be it on stage or on film, there’s much to enjoy and Birtill’s performance is one to treasure, but that enjoyment is somewhat tempered by the feeling that, with a bit more polish and pace, the good could become great.

Runs until 26 September| Photo Mike Kwasniak

Book: Neil Simon Music: Cy Coleman Lyrics: Dorothy Fields Director: Peter Rowe Musical Director: Greg Palmer Reviewer: Glen Pearce   The Cinderella story is a loved theatre staple, but the familiar tale is given a twist in 1960s musical Sweet Charity. Cinderella may get her prince but will Charity find the man of her dreams? Sweet Charity has become a much-loved musical since it first hit Broadway back in 1966. It has become a star vehicle for the likes of Gwen Verdon, Shirley MacLaine, Bonnie Langford and Tamzin Outhwaite. It’s a vehicle that here Katie Birtill takes full advantage of,…

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5 comments

  1. Avatar

    No mention of the laughter throughout from the audience, the full standing ovation at the curtain call or any mention of the great sound and lighting. I think the only thing lacking in this instance is any kind of balanced, well thought through or accurate review. Which is a shame.

  2. Avatar
    Ipswich Audience member

    The review is very accurate in my opinion. Laughter from the audience in occasional scenes and a standing ovation does not translate a well conceived production.
    The scene changes were horrendously slow with crew fully visible. I felt the LED screens were underused and unnecessary only enhancing the piece with occasional comedy. The overall sound, however was the most rehearsed and enjoyable part of the production.
    The choreography was messy and simply old fashioned and the direction predictably slow.
    This actor-musician production once again shows us how a cast of all trades are ultimately master of none.

  3. Avatar

    I agree with Angry Punter – this was a brilliant show. I don’t agree at all that the set changes were too slow or that the lighting was ill used. And I do think the choreography was great and the actor-musicianship was quite outstanding. And as for Katie Birtill – Wow! Please go and see it for yourselves if you can.

  4. Avatar

    Wow, seems to be some ardent fans in the audience! The review is for three stars not one and says it is a good show but could be better. I saw it on Saturday so can’t comment on the laughter or ovation on press night (but since when is the point of a review to review the audience?) but the general opinion in the review seems balanced to me. I think part of the problem lies with the material, material that now seems dated, but Charity herself aside, the performances still needed an energy boost. The scene changes where the cast were involved worked but the removal and then replacing of the lake by stage crew was pitifully slow. I also found the actor musician element not particularly well integrated. Apart from a marching band sequence and some onstage percussion the opportunity was missed. Pace and energy may pick up as it is early in the run, but for me I found the Rhythm to be far from lively. Sorry if that offends the fans but while I enjoyed Saturday, it was by no means the groundbreaking , flawless show some commentators seem to be suggesting.

  5. Avatar

    This wasn’t by any means a bad show but there were a lot of deep flaws. Seemed to mez that it was only Katie B who could hold a tune! Sweet Charity is donkey’s years out of date and this is just a below average production of it. I wonder if the gushing comment above is from someone who only sets foot in the Wolsey twice a year, once for a Ray Cooney farce and then for panto! The problem was that the actors were too busy playing instruments to actually act! Rather than post abuse at the reviewer, why not find some balance yourself, Angry Punter and paint a truer picture of what you saw!