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