Sweet Charity (Melbourne, 2015)

Starting off as a small production at the Hayes Theatre in Sydney last year, this revival of Sweet Charity (first premiering on Broadway in 1966) scored eight Helpmann nominations and three awards, a transfer to the Sydney Opera House, and now a trip to THE theatre capital of the country at the Arts Centre in Melbourne. But only for 2 weeks so for the love of God GET YOUR TICKETS NOW! This independent production is right up there with the best of them, even surpassing most of the current offerings. It’s not on the same grand spectacular scale of The Lion King or Strictly Ballroom, but it’s oh-so-much better.

'I'm a Brass Band'
‘I’m a Brass Band’

In 1960s New York City, Charity Hope Valentine (Verity Hunt-Ballard) works as a dancer-for-hire at the Fandango Ballroom. A hopeless romantic, she falls in love time and time again with the wrong men, but never gives up on the hope of finding the one and striving for a better life. Martin Crewes is triple-cast as three of Charity’s pursuits – the quiet and broody Charlie, the Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal, and the shy and neurotic tax accountant, Oscar Lindquist. Charity is flanked by a further seven jaded dancers, led by the seasoned Nickie (Debora Krizak) and Helene (Kate Cole) who scoff in the face of optimism, while desperately pining to get out of the Fandango just like everybody else.

Verity Hunt-Ballard & Martin Crewes - 'I'm the Bravest Individual'
Verity Hunt-Ballard & Martin Crewes – ‘I’m the Bravest Individual’

Before the overture even begins, this production has perfectly captured the sleaze and dirtiness of the dance hall. The dancers beckon for male audience members to join them, and a brave few (assumedly their friends in the audience) acquiesce. The costumes by Tim Chappel (Priscilla Queen of the Desert) are so spot on – the dancers deliberately look grubby and cheap – and there’s nothing but reds, pinks and purples until later numbers (‘Rich Man’s Frug’, ‘Rhythm of Life’ and ‘I’m a Brass Band’) which serve to show that there’s more out there in the world beyond the Fandango. The set design by Owen Phillips is minimal – rotating two-way mirrors are mostly effective, though slightly irritating in some instances (Nickie and Helene perform ‘Baby, Dream Your Dream’ in its entirety behind them – though assumedly there was some artistic justification for this). This was perhaps the weakest link in the show, but considering its origins in a small theatre, it can’t be faulted too heavily. And unlike The Lion King, Sweet Charity doesn’t rely on extravagant set design to impress its audience.

'Big Spender'
‘Big Spender’

Sweet Charity is full of stupendously fun musical numbers which are funked up with some sexy synth. Dean Bryant’s direction coupled with Andrew Hallsworth’s choreography makes every number pop. Possibly Bob Fosse’s best dance number of all time, ‘Rich Man’s Frug’ is safe in Hallsworth’s hands, though ‘safe’ certainly isn’t an appropriate descriptor. It’s unlike any other musical number you’re likely to have seen before. ‘Big Spender’ is the show’s number one hit and it is just dripping with sleaze – you almost feel like you shouldn’t be watching these desperate women who seem so dead inside (and I mean that as a compliment to their acting abilities). Hunt-Ballard’s hilarity is on show in the very catchy ‘You Should See Yourself’ (my personal favourite) and ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’, while Crewes shows off his singing ability in the powerful ‘Too Many Tomorrows’ and cracks us up to kingdom come in ‘Sweet Charity’. Together they are totes adorbs in ‘I’m the Bravest Individual’ – some might say Crewes overdoes it but WHAT-THE-HELL-EVER. I LOVE IT. Krizak and Cole just ooze regret in ‘Baby, Dream Your Dream’ but where they really kill it is in ‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’. The ensemble bring it in the high-energy dance numbers ‘The Rhythm of Life’, ‘I’m a Brass Band’, and of course ‘Rich Man’s Frug’ (IS IT NOT THE BEST DANCE NUMBER EVER?!) Cy Coleman’s score and Dorothy Field’s lyrics are golden, and whoever designed the souvenir program for this production needs a good talking to. There’s scarcely a mention of them, and NO song list included (or a synopsis for that matter) – WHAT IS THIS?

'Rich Man's Frug'
‘Rich Man’s Frug’

You should see YOURself, Verity Hunt-Ballard, because you were crazy-town out-of-this-world practically perfect in every way the minute you walked in the joint! Sweet Charity is nothing without a killer lead, and killed it she did. Best known for her break-out role as Mary Poppins, here she further proves what an absolute bloody ripper she is. No wonder this is a limited run – the energy required to do this part well is surely not sustainable. Her comic timing is impeccable and she moves seamlessly into darker territory with complete authenticity. And those pipes! She is an absolute freak of nature.

Verity Hunt-Ballard - 'You Should See Yourself'
Verity Hunt-Ballard – ‘You Should See Yourself’

I was initially disappointed to learn that some of the lead actors were playing dual or even triple roles – it seemed somehow an amateur move, a result of not being able to afford a bigger cast. But it ended up being a genius decision. Martin Crewes – who I already knew was amazing after seeing him Pity-the-Child-it-up in Chess a few years ago – gets to showcase his talent like never before. While admittedly he doesn’t get to do a whole lot as the silent Charlie, his performances as the charismatic, self-assured Vittorio Vidal and the painfully awkward Oscar Lindquist are worlds apart and he is fantastic as both. Debora Krizak is perfect as the brashy Nickie, and is almost unrecognisable when she transforms into Vittorio’s insecure girlfriend, Ursula. Together Krizak and Kate Cole make a formidable pair as the aging dancers leading the pack, and along with the female ensemble are at once hilarious and affecting in their despair. The male ensemble, while strong, are relegated to the background.

Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kate Cole & Debora Krizak - 'There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This'
Verity Hunt-Ballard, Kate Cole & Debora Krizak – ‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’

Dean Bryant has emerged from the shadows in recent years, taking on Next to Normal for Melbourne Theatre Company, The Producers and Anything Goes for The Production Company, and the brilliant Britney Spears: The Cabaret starring Christie Whelan-Browne. One can only hope he continues his ascent as he proves himself as one of the best directors of musical theatre today. The only criticism that can be levelled at Bryant here is his ambiguous ending, where there’s some small suggestion that Charity is about to kill herself. BUT IT’S A STORY ABOUT HOPE. I’m still not entirely sure whether that was deliberate or not but it’s only one flaw in an otherwise almost faultless show. It’s refreshing to see a tried and true musical be transformed into something so new and unique – producers need to take note (*COUGH* JOHN FROST *COUGH*) – THIS is what musical theatre should be about! Being daring, innovative, and exciting. Revival after revival is getting boring, but when it’s this damn good you can revive away! This production gives me hope that there is something better. And it’s this.

4.5 stars

Sweet Charity is playing at The Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 7th March 2015


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