Theatre Review: SWEET CHARITY – Royal Exchange, Manchester

When SWEET CHARITY first premiered on Broadway in 1966, the musical defined a decade. Beginning with the hope and optimism of the 1960s and ending with the cynicism of the 1970’s, the production set new limitations for the characters in musicals, particularly women. 50 years later, the Tony-nominated musical has been revived in a brand new production by Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre.

Based on the original screenplay by Federico Fellini, SWEET CHARITY tells the story of Charity Hope Valentine, a young dancer from New York City who is always looking for love but has a habit of falling for the wrong man. When she meets shy tax accountant Oscar, it seems as though Charity’s luck might have changed and their romance sends them whirling and spinning through the dance halls, churches and streets of 1960s New York. But not everything’s a walk in the park and Charity soon faces a choice between Oscar and the wild existence she has chosen to hide from him.

Bold, brassy and brilliantly conceived, Derek Bond’s revival of SWEET CHARITY breathes new life into Neil Simon’s bittersweet story. Instead of focusing on the women as victims, Bond’s dynamic production focuses on the humour of the piece, squeezing every last inch of comedy out of the script and adding a new dimension to the story by casting a woman in the role as Daddy.

The production reunites the team behind the hit production LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS who once again, do an impressive job of transferring such a big musical to the Royal Exchange’s intimate in-the-round theatre. The audience is put at heart of the action, sharing and participating in every dizzying moment of possibility that surfaces for Charity, as well as the rude awakening that follows. James Perkins innovative production design moves like fast moving playground, keeping the pace fast and the energy high, while Sally Ferguson’s equally sharp lighting design mirrors the score and the band.

The challenge for any revival of SWEET CHARITY is finding a lead who has the necessary song-and-dance skills to pull off the big musical numbers but can also channel the bruised vulnerability of Charity. Kaisa Hammarlund does just that, delivering an instantly likeable and engaging performance as the title character, embracing both the goofy, big-hearted openness of Charity, as well as the bleakness of her reality.

Hammarlund is supported by a strong ensemble of just 14 who take on around half a dozen characters each. Bob Harms’ performance as Vittorio Vidal, the Italian movie star who gives Charity a taste of glamour before returning to his drama-queen girlfriend Ursula (Christine Allado), stands out in particularly for its comedy value alone, while Josie Benson’s performance as Daddy Brubeck, the hepcat alternative-religion guru who switches Charity on to “The Rhythm of Life”, leaves a lasting impression despite only being on stage for about 10 minutes.

Fans of the musical will recongise most of the score, with terrific songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields such as BIG SPENDER, RHYTHM OF LIFE and IF MY FRIENDS COULD SEE ME NOW elevating the material. The nine-piece band, who sit among the audience at stalls level, perform Coleman’s outstanding jazz-combo orchestrations with superb panache throughout, while Aleta Collins’ fabulous choreography makes the most of the big score, mixing Fosse style big kicks with swinging 60s twists and frisky gallops.

Big, bright and brazen, SWEET CHARITY boasts everything you could ever want from a musical – brilliant performances, stunning choreography, a fabulous score and plenty of brass. What’s not to love?

5 out of 5 stars

SWEET CHARITY runs at the Royal Exchange until 28 January 2017