On the same day that the Menier Chocolate Factory’s small is beautiful approach to classic Broadway musicals was triumphantly vindicated by its productions of La Cage aux Folles and A Little Night Music respectively receiving 11 and four Tony nominations apiece for their New York transfers, yet another Menier musical has arrived to take the West End by storm.
Sweet Charity – the funny, tender and bittersweet tale of a dance hall hostess doomed to romantic cycles of endless hope and perpetual disappointment – comes up trumps when put under the microscope in this way, because just like its title character, a tender and human heart beats beneath the brassy exterior. Valiantly stripped of the window dressing of big sets and effects, it works even better to expose the tawdry world the characters inhabit. There’s nothing glossy here about the down at heel tawdry nightclub where its hostesses don’t so much dance as defend themselves to music, and may even provide extras at a price.
This is the heterosexual version of La Cage, staffed by equally resilient but even more downtrodden, world-weary sex workers. Matthew White’s production is rooted in a tough sense of reality, and although Tamzin Outhwaite’s punchy Charity may lack an essential vulnerability, she’s also quite clearly one of life’s survivors. So are the wonderful pairing of Josefina Gabrielle and Tiffany Graves as her confidantes and fellow hostesses. Their rendition of Baby Dream Your Dream, about dreams that won’t in fact be realised, could be plucked direct from Chicago, and not just because Gabrielle and Graves have respectively previously played the leads in the current London production of that show.
Likewise Paul J Medford leads a hilarious, trippy Rhythm of Life that could have come straight from the score to Hair. But Sweet Charity, originally premiered in 1966, got there before either of those shows, and is just as significant in the history of Broadway musicals and the vibrant pleasure it can still give, thanks in large part here also to the big, brassy band led by Nigel Lilley and Stephen Mear’s smart, sharp Fosse-inspired choreography.