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Review Round-up: Is Chocolate Charity Sweet?

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The Menier Chocolate Factory is serving up a sugary treat for Christmas, with a revival of 1966 Broadway classic Sweet Charity, which opened at the Southwark venue last week (2 December 2009, previews from 21 November).

Sweet Charity - which has music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields and a book by Neil Simon, with original direction and choreography by Bob Fosse - takes a look at the seedy underbelly of 1960s New York. The gullible, enchanting heroine Charity Hope Valentine dances, laughs and cries her way through a series of whirlwind romances to show-stopping numbers including “Rhythm of Life”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now” and “Hey Big Spender”.

Charity was originally played by Gwen Verdon on Broadway, Juliet Prowse in the West End (in 1967) and was immortalised in the 1969 film version by Shirley MacLaine. The musical was last revived in the West End in a 1998 production at the Victoria Palace starring Bonnie Langford.

This time round, Tamzin Outhwaite plays the title role, alongside a cast including Mark Umbers, Josefina Gabrielle, Tiffany Graves, Paul J Medford and Ebony Molina (See News, 15 Sep 2009). Matthew White, who steered Little Shop of Horrors from the Chocolate Factory to the West End in 2006/07.

The phrase “Christmas cracker” was used more than once as critics sang the praises of the latest Broadway revival from the “Menier musicals machine”. There was not complete consensus, with Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph suggesting it will struggle to match previous Christmas successes such as La Cage Aux Folles and A Little Night Music. But others raved, particularly Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney, who found Outhwaite a “revelation” amid a “truly dynamic ensemble”. Special mentions also went to the “sizzling” choreography of Stephen Mear and the “freshness” of Nigel Lilley's musical supervision.

  • Michael Coveney in Whatsonstage.com (five stars) – “The Menier’s revival of the 1966 Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ New York musical is a Christmas cracker … Matthew White’s production, brilliantly choreographed by Stephen Mear as a series of Sixties pop art tableaux vivants … pins down the smart, sassy sentimentality of the musical with a vengeance.Outhwaite’s a revelation. A proven dramatic actress on stage and screen, she has a blistering musical comedy presence, and athleticism, that makes you forget you’re sorry you’re not watching Shirley MacLaine in the movie after about ten seconds. And she’s backed by a cast of hand-picked high-energy soloists who meld into a truly dynamic ensemble … With its surprise, bitter sweet ending … great libretto and string of knock-out songs.”
  • Michael Billington in The Guardian (four stars) – “The real motor for this production is the choreography of Stephen Mear, which frees itself from the Bob Fosse stage and screen prototypes … 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 … 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.”
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “We’ve a Sweet Charity well worth transferring to the West End. For me, that was evident the moment that Matthew White’s production switched to the Fan-Dango Ballroom and Charity’s fellow taxi-dancers launched into ‘Hey, Big Spender’. Things turned sleazy and balletically slinky as they crowded round an unsmiling punter in a hat, pouting, scowling and turning invitations to ‘laugh, laugh, laugh’ and have ‘fun, fun, fun’ into a sung-through cross between a snarl and an exhausted sneer. The point about Charity is that, though she has known plenty of men, she lacks her chums’ cynicism. For Outhwaite this presents quite a challenge. She must be used yet fresh, knowing yet ditsily innocent. All this Outhwaite embraces with maybe too many big, bright smiles but loads of energy and charm … The show’s one failing is a rather sudden ending that would seem unsatisfactory whether it was happy or not.”
  • Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph (three stars) - “Fine show though it is, however, I can't see this revival of Sweet Charity matching the Menier's previous successes … Unfortunately Tamzin Outhwaite … lacks the class of her illustrious predecessors. She almost entirely fails to penetrate to the heart of the central character, Charity, a dance-hall hostess. Outhwaite lacks both the vulnerability and the charm the character requires ... She isn't a total disaster – her acting during a chaste night with a hilariously self-regarding Italian film star, is genuinely funny … There are good things elsewhere. The Fan-Dango Ballroom where the hostesses promise fun, laughs and a good time to the sleazeball punters in the drained voices of the living dead during the show's most famous song, ‘Big Spender’, is superbly evoked.”
  • Paul Taylor in The Independent  (four stars) – “Sweet Charity – the punchy-tune-packed Broadway musical …  is so blithe in its mid-Sixties happy, hip worldliness that watching it is a bit like being backed into a corner at a party by a beautiful, mini-skirted girl who insists on face-painting you in bright poster colours ... Tamzin Outhwaite makes up in blonde, bobbed personableness what she lacks in vocal variety … Mark Umbers is one of those lucky men who manage to convert extreme good looks into an ongoing funny event. He's a delight as the uptight tax accountant who gets to crunch the odd number with Charity … It's like an affectionate spoof of an affectionate spoof … The Menier ought to watch out that the spirit of Forbidden Broadway doesn't become their default disposition.”
  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard  (four stars) – “The magic Menier musicals machine is at it again … Outhwaite dances well and sings with gusto in Matthew White’s slick production, revelling particularly in ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’… There’s nothing lacking in Stephen Mear’s sizzling choreography, which makes the most of every precious inch of space on the small stage. The best … comes … with ‘Big Spender’ … The way they writhe languidly on their bar stools, managing to exude come-hither allure from behind expressions that are deader than deadpan, is a joy to behold. Josefina Gabrielle and Tiffany Graves also supply Charity with ample, sometimes bracing, doses of dressing-room camaraderie.”
  • Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times  (four stars) – “Another Christmas cracker from the Chocolate Factory. The show itself isn’t in the same league as some earlier musical successes here, but Matthew White’s production is superb … Tamzin Outhwaite, as Charity, is a revelation. She can sing, she can dance and she makes Charity perky, lovable and vulnerable … She is ideally matched by the dashing Mark Umbers, who plays one caddish leading man after another and is perfectly pitched as the geeky Oscar … But this is really an ensemble show and the ensemble delivers tremendously … A few quibbles: the story itself remains pretty thin and the production, compensating perhaps, is a notch too loud and strenuous. But this is a toothsome, bitter-sweet confection for Christmas.”

    Theo Bosanquet & Sabine Schereck

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