Saturday, February 14, 2015

Sweet Charity

Director: Dean Byrant
Book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields
On at the Canberra Theatre Centre until 22 February

Review by John Lombard

Charity Hope Valentine (Verity Hunt-Ballard) has a gift for getting stuck. If she enters an elevator, it is guaranteed to break down, and at one point she even manages to end up trapped at the top of a ferris wheel. She's also stuck in her job as a New York taxi dancer (essentially a hostess) at a seedy club. Charity has a lot to give but, heartbreakingly, nobody wants what she has to offer.

Verity Hunt-Ballard's performance is phenomenal, giving Charity a wide-eyed innocence, irrepressible vitality and gawky, over-sized gestures. When we first meet Charity, she has just been pulled from the river - her most recent boyfriend has ended their relationship by stealing her purse and pushing her into a lake in Central Park. Charity just wants a man to be devoted to - any man will do - and her tragedy is that the only men she ever gets are ones who want to exploit her.

After an adventure with film star Vittorio Vidal (a suave Martin Crewes) she meets the neurotic and needy Oscar (also Martin Crewes, now significantly less suave ), and as love deepens between them it looks as though she will be able to escape her life and start fresh. But she can't quite bring herself to tell Oscarwhat she does for a living - especially her occassional sideline in prostitution, a revelation that could break the purity-obsessed Oscar.

At times, it can be hard to see what the fuss is about - to modern ears taxi dancing sounds quaint, even genteel. And if she's been with other men, so what? However the lighting design by Ross Graham gives the club scenes an appropriately satanic feeling (red lighting is particularly exuberant) to emphasise that while this is a dancing hall, it is also a brothel. Martin Crewes also develops Oscar's neuroticism to the point where the character seems genuinely disturbed, and the hint that he could become violent significantly increases the tension. (Although Oscar is slightly sinister, the relationship is plausible because she know Charity has a lot of experience looking past men's faults, and anyway Oscar is a step up from the guy who pushed her in the river and took her purse.)

The staging has an indie, "found objects" feel, with chairs and two moving partitions used to create different locations. Costume changes often occur on stage with the live band part of the set (and sometimes worked into the action). Place is created mainly through movement and dance, and this aspect of the show is exceptional. Choreographer Andrew Hallsworth provides spectacular dance numbers that are more impressive because they showcase the skill of the performers without the elaborate trappings common in musical theatre. The focus is on the signing and the dancing, and fortunately both are outstanding.

Sweet Charity is just like Charity herself - energetic, loveable, vital and sometimes heartbreaking. A must-see musical.