There was a time, not too many years ago, when the prospect of a home-grown British company reviving a great Broadway musical with enough style, talent and panache to bear comparison with – if not surpass – the original, was unthinkable.
Musicals were just not our thing, and choreographers such as Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse and Agnes de Mille despaired of finding dancers capable of performing their routines in anything other than modified and compromised versions.
Happily all that’s in the past. In the last few years we have, to quote that oft-used but rarely meant cliché, regularly beaten Broadway at its own game. A spate of Sondheim revivals, plus shows such as Hello Dolly!, Carousel and, most recently La Cage aux Folles, definitively prove that anything they can do we can do just as well.
The latest addition to the list is the Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival of Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’s Sweet Charity.
Obviously, for any production of this perennial 1966 musical to work, whoever plays Charity has, quite simply, to sing as well as she dances and act as well as she sings. Oh, and she’s also got to break your heart.
Gwen Verdon who created the role of the dance hostess with a depressing track record for falling for the wrong men, had all those qualities – and then some!
Forty four years later, Tamzin Outhwaite comes pretty close. She’s not the mega-talent Verdon was, but then who is? And if, in the final accounting, she lacks that extra ounce of vulnerability Charity should ideally possess, she invests so much energy and heart in what must be one of the most demanding female musical comedy roles every written, she pulls it off.
Apart from Charity herself, the show’s other must-have component is its choreography.
Most revivals, understandably, rely on recreating Bob Fosse’s brilliantly original concept – every nuance and gesture of which is built into Coleman’s wonderful score – and vice versa.
Stephen Mears, by far this country’s best musical choreographer, has other ideas. He’s reworked Fosse’s indelible staging of such numbers as Hey, Big Spender, The Rich Man’s Frug, Something Better Than This and the Rhythm of Life (the show’s one expendable number) without violating the spirit of the original so that there’s both a freshness to the routines, as well as a whiff of familiarity. And he’s put together a humdinger of a company, every one of whom is a positive asset.
Indeed, with a cast this good, Mears and director Matthew White have rightly decided to maximise their resources by allowing them to double and treble up, which they do most effectively, none more so than Mark Umbers.
Umbers plays opportunist Charlie, movie idol Vittorio Vidal and the nerdish Oscar Lindquist, the trio of men to whom Charity opens her heart.
In every production I’ve seen these roles are played by three different actors. Umbers takes on the challenge of doing them all himself and especially shines as Vittorio and Oscar. For me he’s the star of a show already bursting with talent.
Neil Simon’s gag-infested book (based on Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria) stands up well, gets the job done and benefits from a tweaked, less whimsical ending than the Broadway original. Cy Coleman’s jaunty score and Dorothy Fields’s terrific lyrics remain in a class of their own.
A helluva revival of a Broadway classic.
CLIVE HIRSCHHORN. Courtesy of This Is London.