[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/51381?ns=guardian&pageName=Sweet+Charity+%7C+Theatre+review%3AArticle%3A1314056&ch=Stage&c3=Guardian&c4=Musicals+%28Stage%29%2CTheatre%2CStage%2CWest+End%2CCulture+section&c6=Michael+Billington&c7=09-Dec-03&c8=1314056&c9=Article&c10=Review&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FMusicals[/img]Menier Chocolate Factory, London
The Menier has discovered a winning seasonal formula. You take a non-vintage Broadway musical based on a European movie, cast and choreograph it to the hilt, and invest it with a wild humour. It worked with La Cage aux Folles and it pays off just as handsomely with this joyous revival of a 1966 show, with a score by Cy Coleman, drawn from Fellini's Nights of Cabiria.
Neil Simon's book is actually an improvement on the film. Instead of a good-natured prostitute, Simon's protagonist is a dance-hall hostess named Charity Hope Valentine who, as one of her colleagues observes, runs her heart like a hotel: "You got guys checking in and out all the time." After a contrived episode in which Charity is picked up by an Italian movie star, she finally meets a possible match in a neurotic loner named Oscar. But Simon's deft wit reminds us that Oscar is hardly likely to make it to the altar. Even though he attends a therapy group to cure his painful shyness, he tells Charity: "I never had the nerve to bring it up in class."
While Simon's lines lend the story a needed astringency, the real motor for this production is the choreography of Stephen Mear, which frees itself from the Bob Fosse stage and screen prototypes. You see this in a number like Big Spender, for which Fosse provided a famous image of the dance-hall girls leaning on a barre with knees turned in at angles. Mear gives us something far more louche and tawdry as the dancers provocatively caress every curve of their arched bodies as they compete for male customers. Even better is Rhythm of Life, where Charity and Oscar visit a druggy underground cult whose members dance and jive while preserving a look of spaced-out dopiness. As he proved in Anything Goes and Hello, Dolly!, Mear is the best showbiz choreographer we have.
Tamzin Outhwaite makes the role of Charity her own. Instead of seeking to imitate the kookiness of Shirley MacLaine in the film, she radiates a sunny, cheerful innocence, and, even if you wonder how Charity has preserved this after eight years as a hostess, Outhwaite dances with a whirling energy that becomes the outward expression of the character's essential purity. She is well supported by Mark Umbers as both the preening movie idol and the panic-stricken Oscar, and Matthew White's strongly cast production boasts two striking cameos from Tiffany Graves and Josefina Gabrielle, wistfully dreaming of the glamour of the secretarial life. Under Nigel Lilley's musical supervision, a half-forgotten 1960s show is dusted down and given a captivating vitality and freshness.
Until 7 March. Box Office: 0207 907 7060.
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Guardian: Sweet Charity | Theatre review
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