Over a decade before Stephen Sondheim's penchant for art-house films led him to find inspiration for A Little Night Music in the work of Ingmar Bergman, Bob Fosse saw Federico Fellini's The Nights of Cabiria - about an Italian prostitute who longs for romance and respectability - and saw in it the potential for a stage musical that would be a star vehicle for his wife, Gwen Verdon.
Broadway, the thinking went, would never accept a prostitute-as-heroine, so by the time Neil Simon had joined the team as librettist and Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields came in to take care of the music and lyrics, Charity Hope Valentine had been toned down to be a dance hall hostess who sold only her time and indulged in "no other business". The fact that this rather makes a nonsense of her ultimate rejection by the beau she eventually finds apparently escaped them - but then, Simon always was a one-liner rather than a plot-liner specialist, and anyone looking for a coherent plot in Sweet Charity is on the wrong quest.
What you should be looking for is great production numbers of great songs with great hoofing and great gags. And a great star at the centre of it all. At the Crucible you get the lot. Every once in a blue moon, the English regional theatre shows London how to do the blockbuster musical, as director Timothy Sheader does here.
In Robert Jones' understated set, the Crucible's large acting area is left empty, except when an exuberantly draped four-poster drops from the flies for the impeccably timed, and hilarious, Vittorio Vidal sequence. Otherwise, just a metal staircase descends diagonally from ceiling to floor and a metal frame with coloured lights upstage half masks the orchestra. This evokes the seediness of the Fan-Dango Ballroom, serves equally effectively for exteriors, provides acting levels at all heights - and gives Charity the chance to make her entrance sliding backwards down a banister.
It was said of Verdon that her legs were endless while Juliet Prowse and Shirley Maclaine, who rendered their own Charity's, were similarly built for choreography. Anna-Jane Casey is not from the same mould, being more gamine and a touch wiry, but as a kook, she's the tops. She throws herself at the show like a pure-bred steeplechaser on speed, swinging gloriously from a chandelier at one moment and running up the aisle to act as dance captain at another, commenting to audience members on the precision drill of her fellow dancers. It's a magnificent performance: the lady is, quite simply, a star.
How much of the choreography (by Karen Bruce) follows Fosse's original I don't know, but it's fine, immaculately drilled and punishingly energetic stuff by a chorus of only eight. All the characters Charity spins off are strongly cast in a show that has more than its fair share of big production numbers. But the simple fact remains: it's Casey's night.
- Ian Watson