Part of the reason “last minute” for me means anything with less than two weeks of advance notice is because long, long ago, in a galaxy months and months away, in which I can barely IMAGINE the seasons will have changed and the clocks will have rolled back (or forward, I always forget) by the time the event in question comes to pass, I received an invitation from the West End Whingers to join them at the Menier Chocolate Factory for Sweet Charity, and I said yes. Now, this wasn’t a full invite with the gang, it was a “get it yourself” deal, so I haven’t quite made it into the upper echelons of Bloggerdom yet, but, hey, at least I got the email. (I can thoroughly piss off people that produce fringe shows and the occasional rabid Jesse Buckley fan, but mostly I’m a big nobody with time on her hands who really, really enjoys seeing shows with people who love the theater. And writing run on sentences. And sentence fragments. Sometimes.)
ANYWAY so as I was saying, I bought tickets to see Sweet Charity months and months ago, for basically two reasons: 1) the Whingers were going and 2) it was at the Menier, where old musicals come back to life, done full-sized and right in your lap. Now, sometimes the musicals bite and all you can thing about is how small and close the chairs are; but the number of winners (like the lovely A Little Night Music and the hysterical Forbidden Broadway) outweigh the losers, so hey, I figured, I’ll fly Air Menier again – much like EasyJet, you’re more often a winner than a loser (especially at 25 quid a ticket). And I do REALLY like musicals, even though Sweet Charity is not in my book of big love – but I’ve only ever seen the movie version, and who knows what wonders a live performance might have?
Well, the first wonder I would say has got to be the leading lady, Tamzin Outhwaite, who actually sold me on the role of Charity in a way that world-weary, wise old Shirley Maclaine just couldn’t manage. She was both fresh and happy and believable in her own self-deception and neverending surprise at just how very crappy and also wonderful life can be. Her key philosophy – “Without love, life would have no purpose” – actually did not sound sappy coming from her. I also found her extremely charismatic – I tracked her constantly on stage – and a real comedienne (especially hysterical in the closet scene at Vittorio’s place). I got a real kick out of her “tribute to Fosse” dance in the same scene and, well, mostly found it amazing that she could make me buy into a character I’d just written off as as ridiculous as Desdemona. Instead, I was seeing traces of a young Blanche DuBois – the innocent before everything goes south. She’s really got what it takes to make this production live.
Was the next wonder the band or some other member of the cast? Well … the band actually was leaving me (in my princely row D seats) somewhat deaf. All of the brass REALLY put the sound across, but my right ear was ringing after the show. That said, they made the score come to life in a sassy way that did a lot to make this aged music sound bright, like a vintage automobile that’s been fully restored to shiny penny glory. And the backing cast, well, they were dead in the eyes for “Hey, Big Spender” – but great singers and a perfect look for their roles, a real variety of faces and body types that really had the “normal girls doing an unusual job” feel to them – but, gotta say, great legs on the lot of them. And yet … there was something just a little bit too tatty about their costumes for me (as a connoisseur of 60s fashion). The era still had a lot more tailoring, and a few more darts and finishing would go a long ways to make the women look more “of the era” and less “we whipped these up in about two hours flat, isn’t the fabric divine?” (I especially wish Charity could get a workover of her red fringed dress – the neckline just wasn’t right, and she’s so perfect in every other dress, I figure, forget the fact that her character’s not got the money to look nice and invest in a really gorgeous outfit so we can all sit there and ooh-ahh like she deserves.)
Though there are many things to praise … well, this show was written by Neil Simon, and I famously don’t care for his plays and their shallow wit. The comedy scenes were really good (my favorite being the one at the diner where both Charity and her boyfriend sit back to back at adjoining booths), but the drama … just wasn’t dark enough. And for the show itself, well, it was enjoyable, but it didn’t really move me the way I wanted to be. This time I couldn’t blame it on Charity. I think maybe this is just not one of the musicals that resonates for me – the story didn’t blow me out of the water like Cabaret, the songs don’t slay me like Anything Goes. It’s a classic, but … not my favorite musical. However, I think this is going to be a very successful run, and if you like it, you should probably book before it sells out.
Even though I didn’t love it, the fact of the matter is, I still walked out (slightly sloshed and a good hour after it ended) singing the songs I’d just heard. That hasn’t happened to me … well, excluding “Silence: The Musical,” it was the first time all year, and by those standards, I’d say that this was a damned fine way to spend a dark, miserable, wintery London afternoon – in a theater surrounded by cheerful trumpets and singing strumpets.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Sunday, November 23rd, 2009. Sweet Charity continues through March 7th, 2010. The Whingers’ review is here. Book now if you want to go.)