Sunday, November 29, 2009

I have had two theatrical excursions in the past few days that, of course, must be shared with you Constant Reader....

On Wednesday I made my first trip to the Menier Chocolate Factory since I was interviewed for a box office job there. Three productions have been and gone since then so I feel enough water has passed under London Bridge. And as no other theatre has felt the urge to revive SWEET CHARITY I guess it's time to return...

Indeed it was the lure of seeing Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields' classic 1966 musical on stage for the first time that had me back on the purgatorial banquettes. I have seen the film countless times and have enjoyed both the soundtrack and the 1967 London cast recording with Juliet Prowse as Charity and the magnificent Josephine Blake as Nickie but the stage version was unknown to me.

It's last London incarnation was in 1998 at the Victoria Palace in a short-lived production starring Bonnie Langford which amazingly didn't have me laying siege to the box office for a ticket and the only other opportunity to see the show was in 2005 when Christina Applegate was appearing in a revival on Broadway. There were still tickets available the evening Owen and I checked into our hotel but we eventually decided food and a snooze were higher up the agenda. So it was with a sigh of relief that the lights dimmed around me, Owen and Angela and the Menier band struck up the brassy, swaggering Overture.I had been quietly looking forward to the show but a nagging doubt remained. Last year the Menier misfired bigtime with an awful production of THEY'RE PLAYING OUR SONG which worryingly also had a book by Neil Simon but Matthew White's production was, by and large, a success and I had a great time. I actually think the main problem I had with the show was Neil Simon's book. What was rib-tickling 43 years ago doesn't always raise a smile now and I felt it was definitely time for a revision. But then I have never been a huge fan of his writing. He does however come into his own with the exchanges in the Fandango Ballroom - "We don't dance, we defend ourselves to music".

Luckily Cy Coleman's memorable score and Dorothy Fields' tart, gimlet-eyed lyrics save the day - it's remarkable the show isn't revived more often with show-stoppers like "Big Spender", "If My Friends Could See Me Now", "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" and "Rhythm of Life". Surprisingly they lost out on a Tony Award to the dour MAN OF LA MANCHA.

Although it seems just plain wrong for the "Rich Man's Frug" not to be danced to Bob Fosse's ice-cool choreography, Steven Mears' does a fine job in this and all the other routines.

Director Matthew White keeps the show moving at a rare clip and has given all the scenes in the Fandango Ballroom an air of quiet desperation and barely-disguised menace - none more so in the scene when a new girl appears among the hardened and disillusioned taxi dancers.

The main surprise of the evening has to be Tamzin Outhwaite as Charity. Although maybe not as obviously sympathetic as her character should be, she more than holds her own in the dance numbers and has a nice singing voice. I guess it was a surprise as since her departure from 'Eastenders' she has worked consistantly on television in humourless tv series where she has been a sort of televisual Barbie - army Tamzin, hotel manager Tamzin, doctor Tamzin etc. But here she is very watchable and easily navigates the more time-worn elements of Simon's script.
She is more than ably abetted by Josefina Gabrielle and Tiffany Graves as Nickie and Helene, the dancehall hostesses closest to Charity. Although they both appear to be channelling their previous roles as Velma and Roxie in CHICAGO, they both bring a heady waft of hard-bitten world weariness to the Fandango scenes and their "Big Spender" was deliciously aggressive.
In a nice casting decision all the men in Charity's life are played by the same actor, suggesting how she keeps making the same mistake. Mark Umbers plays in order of appearance: a menacing Charlie, a suave Vittorio Vidal and a panicky Oscar. The character of Oscar is so underwritten by Simon that you need an actor with bags of charm to carry the role off and Umbers has exactly that, making the ending all the sadder when Oscar denies Charity her happy ending.

The always dependable Paul J. Medford was a suave lead male dancer in the "Rich Man's Frug" and in the second half stopped the show as Big Daddy Brubeck with a fantastic "Rhythm Of Life" wearing an afro wig that had a life all it's own!

Jack Edwards was a ribald Herman, the commandant of the ballroom, and belted out a fine "I Love To Cry At Weddings". The ensemble doubled and tripled up to fine effect and a special mention must be made of the statuesque Ebony Molina who turned it OUT as the lead dancer in the "Rich Man's Frug" wearing a dress that made her a human glitter ball!

Although I doubt whether it will continue the pattern of Menier Christmas shows that then transfer into the West End - SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC - it's a production that brims with - well, the rhythm of Broadway life and is well worth seeing so get booking now!

I'm not sure whether the decision to stage SWEET CHARITY, which is based on Fellini's film "Le Notti di Cabiria", was decided upon to tie-in with the cinema release of Rob Marshall's screen version of NINE, the musical of Fellini's "8 1/2" but it's a strange twist of fate if not. Or as Charity would have it "The fickle finger of fate".
I must admit, the closer it gets to it's release the more I want to see it!

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