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Sweet Charity

Matthew White's staging of the beloved 1966 musical is hugely entertaining, but lacks some emotional nuance. logo
Tamzin Outhwaite and company in Sweet Charity
(© Catherine Ashmore)
Matthew White's staging of the 1966 Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musical Sweet Charity, now at London's Menier Chocolate Factory, is hugely entertaining if not quite as emotionally nuanced as it could be. The same can be said of its leading lady, Tamzin Outhwaite.

Based on Federico Fellini's 1957 film The Nights of Cabiria, about the exploits of an Italian street walker, the New York-set tuner makes it clear that all its heroine sells is her time, not her body. Dance hall hostess Charity Hope Valentine (Outhwaite) is good-natured, generous, and eternally optimistic -- despite being hopelessly unlucky in love and attracting the kind of men who only want to take her for a ride. She eventually finds a shot at happiness with shy, nervous Oscar (Mark Umbers), but it's clear from the beginning that he won't provide the simple route to contentment that she wants.

Outhwaite exudes the requisite combination of perky charm and a slight gawky awkwardness as Charity, and proves herself a nimble comic performer, especially in the scene where she ends up hiding in the bedroom closet of Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal (also played by Umbers). It's an able and amiable central performance, but Outhwaite just doesn't quite have the necessary vulnerability the character requires. When Charity is, once again, knocked about by life, Outhwaite is just too resilient, too strong, and too quick to pick herself up, and this has an impact on what should be a deeply poignant moment for both her and for the audience.

Umbers is superb in the dual roles of the neurotic Oscar and the wonderfully self-regarding Vittorio. Oscar is a particularly difficult part; he's appealing yet anxious and ultimately unforgivably weak, and Umbers pitches things perfectly and manages to hit just the right balance. The ensemble cast works tightly together, with Josefina Gabrielle standing out as Charity's life-hardened dance hall colleague Nicky, while Annalisa Rossi is also memorably amusing in a number of smaller roles.

Some incredibly well-staged musical numbers help smooth over the more questionable elements of Neil Simon's book. Choreographer Stephen Mear stages a blank-faced and irony laced "Hey Big Spender" with a suitably seedy feel and pulls out all the stops for the full on hippie-haired and bead-bedecked 1960s frug of "The Rhythm of Life." Tim Shortall's set and Matthew Wright's costumes -- highlighted by lots of shimmering mini-dresses -- also add to the period feel of this enjoyable production.

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