The latest offering for music theatre aficionados in Melbourne, Sweet Charity is a musical in a category of its own, Julie Houghton writes. It is not a romantic, feel good, happy-ever-after show, but nor is it operatic tragedy. While the ending in this new production at the Playhouse has a dark twist, the humour and fun to be had by cast and audience along the way makes it hard to categorise.
This is a pared down production, with the roles and ensemble work shared between a dozen or so people, chief of whom are the effervescent triple treat Verity Hunt-Ballard in the title role, and former West End music theatre star Martin Crewes as the nerdy love of her life, Oscar, among other things … but more of that later.
If you think you don’t know the musical at all, you will certainly recognize a couple of its most famous numbers – Hey Big Spender and Rhythm of Life began their life in the plot of this bittersweet musical, and are definite highlights in a very fine show.
With a book by Neil Simon, and music and lyrics by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields respectively, there is a lot of Broadway royalty involved in the creation of the musical, which premiered back in the 1960s. So does it stand the test of time? The answer is definitely yes, and this particular touring production takes it in a different direction that grabs the audience’s attention and doesn’t let it go.
Having performed one of the minor leads, (Ursula the blonde bombshell), in a university production a few decades ago, I found I was recalling every song lyric and so much of the book, because it made a great impact on me at the time. Trivia lovers may be interested in the fact that our Oscar in the Monash University production was James Reyne, as a legitimate music theatre high baritone, before he went onto to fame and fortune as the lead singer in Australian Crawl!
This production has a brief two week season in Melbourne after a successful Sydney season, and is directed by Dean Bryant with choreography by Andrew Hallsworth and musical direction by Andrew Worboys. In reducing by about two-thirds the usual number of performers, this Sweet Charity is a lean mean fighting machine – and it works.
As Charity, Verity Hunt-Ballard is a smash hit, and is on stage all night – quite a feat in what is a long show at nearly three hours, and her energy never flags. She plays Charity with the trademark wise-cracking humour but with a beautiful innocence and poignancy – the audience falls in love with Charity and bleeds for the tough deal life seems to give her.
Martin Crewes doesn’t just double his role as Oscar – he triples it, playing Charity’s other two male love interests, the brief silent opening role as Charlie and the wonderfully over the top B grade movie star Vittorio Vidal, who sings the excruciatingly high and quite awful Too Many Tomorrows. It’s one of the songs that fits the description:- “it’s so bad it’s terrific”. And Crewes carries it off with aplomb.
He then makes the transformation from the George Clooney look-alike Vittorio to the nerdy, plain and nervous Oscar. I take my hat off to Tim Chappel’s costume design that can make such a handsome man as Crewes look so ordinary as Oscar. It’s a tour de force from this music theatre star.
Also playing double roles is the powerhouse performer Debora Krizak as Charity’s smart mouthed mate Nickie, who transforms into the hysterical snobbish English rose Ursula. While I felt her Ursula occasionally overdid the histrionics, her Nickie was sensational and I would like to see more of this talented performer. Kate Cole complements her well as her sidekick Helene.
Taking on the role of Big Daddy is Kuki Tipoki, who explodes onto the stage for the Rhythm of Life number. Kuki also appears in the ensemble – and sharp eyed theatregoers will pick him out in a rather unusual guise. The dancing from the ensemble is sharp and satisfying, and the onstage band is terrific.
Musical director Andrew Worboys transforms into the Dance Hall owner Herman for a spirited and hilarious rendition of I Love To Cry At Weddings.
While there is plenty of laughter along the journey, audiences should be aware that this production of Sweet Charity has a darker ending than other productions I have seen, which adds to the poignancy. In the final quiet scenes you could hear a pin drop, but do take a tissue as this is a show that makes you really care about its heroine – brava Verity Hunt-Ballard!
Julie Houghton reviewed Sweet Charity at the Arts Centre on February 26, 2015. The production picture shown was by Jeff Busby.